Superintendent's remarks at school assignment meeting

Remarks to the External Advisory Committee on School Choice
Superintendent Carol R. Johnson
Monday, September 24, 2012

Let me begin by acknowledging Mayor Menino and the tremendous team efforts that have gone into this report; the community feedback and the broad process that culminates tonight with this presentation.

We are fortunate to have Mayoral leadership with vision and foresight; two outstanding committee chairs - a parent and former School Committee member, Mrs. Helen Daher and Boston University, College of Education Dean, Dr. Hardin Coleman who were joined by an extraordinary and talented group of External Advisory Committee (EAC) members and sub-committee co-chairs who have committed numerous hours of listening, tackled challenging discussions and often competing interests, and yet remained steadfast in their commitment to hear diverse voices and to focus on improving the educational opportunity and outcomes for all of Boston’s children.

We acknowledge also the Boston School Committee and thank the Chair, Rev. Gregory Groover, for appointing School Committee Member Mary Tamer to serve on the External Advisory Committee and to represent the School Committee as its liaison. Last, but certainly not least, I want to thank our BPS team; Rebecca Firsch, representing the Mayor’s office, Mary Ann Crayton, who led our community engagement process, Jocelyn Wright, Michael Goar, Kim Rice, Klare Shaw, Peter Sloan, Craig Chin and so many others who have put in countless hours and weekends to research questions, pull together data so that our and your deliberations could be comprehensive, transparent and offer possibilities.

I am reminded this evening of what John Dewey said in 1901, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child – that must the entire community want for all of its children.” Today, we as a community, face the most important and impactful decisions in the history of this city, and the complexity and urgency of this important work requires an unwavering and singular focus, and a resolve to do what must be done to ensure all of our children’s future for generations to come.

As we embark on the choices we have as a community, we cannot forget the sacrifices and determination of many who came before us to address the issues of excellence and equity. We cannot forget the Roberts’ family, a black family who in 1849 petitioned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to allow their daughter to attend an all-white school; or those like Primus Hall who opened the first school for blacks in Boston, the Abiel Smith School; we won’t forget the hard won 1954 Supreme Court decision or the tumultuous events in 1973 and 1974; many in our community do remember.

Teachers like Phyllis Ellison Feaster, who was then a student at South Boston High School, but who now teaches at Roosevelt K-8 in the Boston Public Schools, or others like Suzanne Lee, Carmen Pola or Mel King, who are all still actively involved in our community. This is Boston’s legacy and we cannot ignore it or dismiss it s significance. We must both understand and integrate this history into how we move forward to construct a new, different and better future, particularly for students whose life chances depend on the choices we make today. We cannot ignore the consequences of concentrated poverty, or pretend that we have closed achievement gaps, or fail to address the gaps for our Black and Latino males in particular. But we cannot continue to do everything we have always done in the same way we have done them and expect different results for our students, especially for those most at risk for failing and dropping out.

On example of the challenge we face is evidenced not too far from where we are right now. In the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood response team area, one third of the population is under the age of 18, and 30 percent are children living with single moms. One thousand nine hundred twelve (1,912) students in this area attend a Boston Public School. These students and their families need great schools and strong community support systems.

Unfortunately, these 1,900 students attend 102 different schools. We only have 128 in total. They attend 32 K-5 schools; 21 K-8 schools; 400 students attend middle schools, and 30 different high schools; 3 different early learning centers; and 6 different special education centers. This neighborhood is close by to where we are tonight - bordered by Columbia Road on the North, Quincy and Adams Streets to the East, Geneva Avenue to the West and Westville Street to the South.

Our parents want choice, but they also want a sense of community and extended and seamless supports for after-school and summer learning.
While we are the first to say that much remains to be done to create schools of excellence, choice and equity, the Boston of 2012 is very different that the Boston of 1849, 1954 and 1974.

We are different in three ways: our diversity, our quality and our process. We are more culturally and racially diverse than we have been in our history with students from 140 countries, speaking 80 different languages. Students of color make up 87 percent of our enrollment and we are serving an increased number of younger students with disabilities, and 46 percent of our students come from households where English is not the first language. Forty percent of BPS students are either currently learning English or mastered academic English while attending .

The education of English Language Learners has been transformed in a very short time. In the past three and a half years we have identified thousands more English Language Learners who were previously not receiving enough services in our classrooms. Today we are providing the services they need to succeed academically. More than 3,000 teachers have been trained to teach these students and our ELLs are showing phenomenal progress in learning English. We are proud and celebrate this diversity and believe that with the right investments and support, all BPS students will be well equipped to compete and excel globally.

During the 2004 school assignment process, parents told us that “quality” mattered most, but was not evenly distributed across the city. They asked for more early childhood programs and more kindergarten through 8th grade (K-8) programs, and they wanted us to make changes where there was underperformance. We have responded.

We have implemented a new system for equitably distributing resources among schools. We have significantly increased the number of K-1 or 4 year-old seats; we have gone from 14 K-8 Schools to 24 K-8 schools, creating seamless pathways while at the same time improving quality across the city.

Let me offer just a few examples: We mobilized specific and targeted investments where the need was greatest in our Circle of Promise, and see much progress in our turnaround schools in Roxbury at the Trotter, Orchard Gardens and the Burke. Just last week, Massachusetts Commissioner Chester announced that two BPS Level 4 schools led the state and posted the biggest combined two-year increases in the percent of students scoring Proficient or higher between 2010 and 2012: Orchard Gardens K-8 and Burke High School. The Hale, Mason and our new in-district charter school, Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School, in partnership with the Boston Teachers’ Residency Program - all in Roxbury, boast long waiting lists and we have evidence that these schools are turning around. Last spring the School Committee approved a new innovation plan at Madison Park Vocational and Technical High School to improve the program and increase partnerships that will lead to post-secondary careers. Our investments in the Circle of Promise are indeed showing promise.

In Dorchester with help from City Year, we are turning around the performance at the Dever-McCormack with a longer school day, a two-way bilingual program and teacher teams with a renewed focus on results. In South Boston, UP Academy, a middle grade in-district charter school has doubled the proficiency rates in mathematics, increasing their math scores more than any other school in the state.

We have expanded access to our EdVestors’ “School on the Move,” the Excel High School, and opened a new innovation high school, focused on environmental education, the Boston Green Academy, and our first ever dual-language high school, the Margarita Muñiz in Jamaica Plain. In Dorchester, Tech Boston and the Harbor Middle School have demonstrated significant growth, and across Boston in Allston-Brighton, Charlestown, Jamaica Plain, Hyde Park and East Boston, families are choosing us as we expanded or created a K-8 at the Edison, a K-8 at the Eliot and Warren Prescott, a K-8 at the Umana; and K-8 at the Gardner Full Service Pilot School.

But parents also told us that while access was important, quality matters most. In addition to creating greater access to our highest performing schools, and working to improve our eleven Turnaround Schools, we have indentified 20 other schools to target investments and support. These schools, our High Support Schools, are already receiving more data and technical support from us and from external partners to accelerate student performance.

We have increased advanced placement courses in our high schools, enrolled more 8th graders in Algebra I and recruited more middle school students to compete in the citywide science competition. Thousands more students have weekly arts, athletic and after-school/summer school opportunities than just two years ago, and we are working to better serve our English Language learners and expand inclusion opportunities for students with disabilities. We are in the process of significantly expanding opportunities for students with disabilities across the District. Over the past two years, the Boston Inclusive Schools Network has grown from 5 schools in 2008-09 to 24 schools in 2012-13. These include schools at all levels - early childhood, elementary, middle and high - with a number of schools electing to specialize in certain disability areas – Autism, emotional impairment, learning disabilities, intellectual impairment and multiple disabilities.

We know from listening to thousands of parents that having a great teacher matters. With ratification of the tentative agreement with the Boston Teacher’s Union, this contract will put in place a new educator evaluation system to improve the quality of teaching, provide greater hiring flexibility for principals and increase the number of nurses and social workers to support students’ non-academic needs.

We have listened to the diverse voices of our community and based on your feedback, we have made changes. We have made progress and yet we all recognize that much more needs to be done to ensure that all of our students succeed.

Tonight you are receiving five different models for student assignment. These models are designed to respond to the Committee’s discussions around equitable access, closer to home, school choices, predictability, reducing complexity and transportation cost reductions. We are mindful that families first and foremost value quality. What these maps will not be able to guarantee is quality. That is why, even as we present these maps to you, we are working aggressively through our Teachers’ Contract to improve teaching quality, working with our partners to expand time during the school day and the school year and continue the investments in our Turnaround and High Support Schools where we are seeing progress.

We also recognize that these maps do not reflect the facilities needs in neighborhoods where there are few or no schools within walking distance or there is greater demand in some areas than there are buildings available. We will work with our staff and the City of Boston to identify the upgrades, expansions and facilities needs including the downtown and Fenway areas of the city, to ensure the improvements and equitable access that is needed is available across the city.

There are other programmatic changes that are not included in these maps, but do require our attention and should be a part of a comprehensive strategy for increasing predictability and continuity in our schools. These changes include exploring innovation status for more of our schools and K-8 expansions in schools like the Condon in South Boston, the Trotter in Roxbury, the Blackstone in the South End, the Hennigan in Jamaica Plain and the Mattahunt in Mattapan.
We will also identify space for increased demand for the Montessori program in East Boston, an inclusion high school for special education students and expand dual-language programs as outlined in the ELL Task Force recommendations.

This process has been inclusive and we have reached out to every community to make sure that the guiding principles considered reflect the values of our parents and this community. We have been fortunate to have the External Advisory Committee’s leadership and thoughtfulness on this important issue.

We look forward to feedback and a thoughtful discussion as we move ahead. Again, thank you for your efforts and commitment to this endeavor.