Roxbury Prep Charter School students deserve a state-of-the-art learning place

By Roy Lincoln Karp
Special to the Reporter

High school students at Roxbury Prep Charter School have to eat lunch in their classrooms. Their school has no gym and no performing arts space. The student body is split into two parts located five miles apart, a circumstance that presents significant practical challenges and makes it difficult to foster a shared sense of community. That could all change if the school’s plan to build a new, state-of-the-art high school in Roslindale comes to fruition.

“When I graduate from this school I want to come back to a high school where I can see everyone,” says Olivia Dunlap, a junior who lives in Roslindale, the only neighborhood in Boston without a public high school. “A new building would allow us to have space as a community and socialize. Whether it’s a dance or sporting events, we need to be one school.”

After reviewing more than 50 possible locations, the school concluded that a property at Belgrade Avenue and the West Roxbury Parkway was the only one feasible in terms of size, cost, and access to public transit. The site, which is zoned for educational purposes as of right, is adjacent to the Bellevue Commuter Line stop and four bus lines. The school justifiably touts the project as transit-driven development that will put students on underutilized trains and buses in a reverse commute.

But some residents are not happy. The school is up against a “Not in My Backyard” campaign replete with lawn signs, a website, and rotary visibilities. Conspicuously absent from their slogan, “Stop 361 Belgrade,” is any mention of a school. The site, currently home to an autobody shop and a shuttered tire dealership, will likely be developed whether a school is built there or not.

The residents leading the charge have registered with the city as the Greater Belgrade Avenue Neighborhood Association. “GBANA is essentially a single-issue organization seeking legitimacy by calling itself a neighborhood association,” says Rachel Young, a member of the nearby Longfellow Area Neighborhood Association, which recently hosted a presentation by Roxbury Prep. Young is also active with “We Support Roxbury Prep,” a campaign that has gathered more than 2,000 signatures in support of the high school, including 650 from residents of Roslindale and West Roxbury.

While residents remain divided, local pols have lined up in opposition to the school. Tim McCarthy, whose City Council district would house the school, told me he has to look out for the interests of his constituents. As for constituents who favor the proposal, he says he “doesn’t put a lot of stock into petitions.”

McCarthy says he doesn’t “look at this as a school, but like any other development proposal” before complaining that a school would have a greater impact on traffic and parking than a residential development at the same location. Presented with the fact that 90 percent of Roxbury Prep students get to school on public transit, he reminds me that “the school day does not end at 2:15. There are basketball games and performances that take place after school.” The very thing for which Olivia Dunlap was yearning – a rich high school experience with sporting events and dances – is for McCarthy an unsolvable parking problem.

Councillor Matt O’Malley, whose district abuts the site, also opposes the project. He believes the school provides inadequate space for a school of its size, but is vague about specifics. The school’s plan for a 96,000 square foot building for 800 students provides comparable space per pupil to several recently built charter schools including Academy of the Pacific Rim, Boston Collegiate Middle School, and the new Brooke Charter High School.

O’Malley also opposes the project because of the lack of Chapter 46 funding, which reimburses school districts for students they lose to charter schools. Boston, he asserts, is missing out on $60 million to which it is entitled under the statute. But Roxbury Prep is authorized to expand its high school to 800 students based on its existing state charter whether or not they build a new school in Roslindale.

So what is really going on here? Many have accused GBANA of being motivated by racist fears of black and Latino teens coming to “their” neighborhood. Not surprisingly, neither GBANA nor the school want to talk about race, saying they would prefer instead to debate the project on its merits. That debate should go forward. In the meantime, elected officials should get off the NIMBY bandwagon, especially one that is being driven by fear more than facts.