A GROUP OF Boston Public Schools parents who say the district is falling short when it comes to educating special needs students want to see Charlestown High School remade into an “innovation school” with greater flexibility to serve those students. But their plan is running into a buzzsaw of opposition from teachers at the school, who say they were cut out of any conversations about the proposal, and advocates who worry that the plan won’t serve all student populations now at the school.
Meanwhile, even the turn of events leading up the plan’s recent submission to the School Department is in dispute, with proponents insisting they were blocked by Superintendent Brenda Cassellius’s office from engaging in conversations with the Charlestown High community, while a School Department spokesman maintains Cassellius “did not direct anyone to deny meetings.”
Whether the plan moves forward now hinges on the recommendation of a three-member screening committee, made up of the superintendent, the school committee chair, and the president of the Boston Teachers Union. The three officials, or designees they have appointed, are scheduled to meet on Wednesday afternoon to consider whether to advance the proposal and have a broader planning committee of school, district, and community members flesh out a final proposal. If it involves waivers from or changes to the teachers’ contract, if would require negotiation with the union before going to the School Committee, which ultimately must sign-off on any innovation school plan.
The proposal would effectively close and reopen Charlestown High as a high school aimed at having all students engage in Early College programs through which they graduate from high school with a two-year associate’s degree or career certificate. It would also focus on serving special needs students in “inclusion” classes that have them learning alongside general education peers rather than in separate classrooms.
“It’s first and foremost driven by the lack of programming for kids who are leaving 8th grade inclusion settings with limited choices for high school,” said Ross Wilson, one of the four parents behind the proposal and a former deputy superintendent in the Boston schools.
The debate over Charlestown High comes on the heels of major reforms earlier this year to admission policies at the city’s three selective-entry exam schools. That process saw months of attention devoted to schools for higher-performing students at a time when many of the “open enrollment” high schools attended by the majority of students in Boston are languishing amid low achievement scores and graduation rates.
A 2010 state education reform law allows districts to create “innovation schools” that are free to experiment with curricular offerings, exercise more control over their budget, and change the length of the school day or year. An innovation school proposal can be submitted by a wide range of applicants, including parents, teachers, a district superintendent, teacher unions, or a local nonprofit organization. They can either propose a conversion to an innovation school, which requires approval of two-thirds of a school’s teachers, or a new school, which requires a negotiated agreement among the applicant, the teachers union, and the superintendent. The Charlestown proposal is for the establishment of a new school at the Charlestown High School site.
Under the model for a new innovation school, teachers at the school could be replaced and other aspects of the union contract could be sidestepped. The proposal calls for staff to work staggered shifts to accommodate a school day that it envisions as running from 7 am to 5 pm.
Three years ago, a report commissioned by the Boston Public Schools found that roughly 1 of every 5 students in the district was “off track” to graduate from high school, a figure that had barely changed since a similar report was issued a decade earlier. The vast majority of “off track” students attend one of the city’s 18 open enrollment high schools or six alternative schools, and the 2018 report pointed to the district’s open enrollment high schools as places where students often fall even further behind after starting there. The findings “suggest the need for a dramatic new approach to improving open enrollment schools,” the report said.
Charlestown High is certainly among the open enrollment high schools that have struggled. The school graduation rate is 55 percent, while only 16 percent of students are meeting or exceeding expectations on the MCAS English test and only 28 percent are doing so in math.
“As a faculty at Charlestown, we know intimately that our open enrollment high schools are in crisis,” Cole Moran, a 10th grade English teacher at the school, said in testimony on the innovation school proposal last week before the Boston School Committee. But Moran said the problems stem from “chronic underinvestment and instability,” and he and a succession of Charlestown High teachers who testified blasted the proposal for an innovation school makeover.
One teacher after another ripped the plan for being developed without seeking input from students, families, or staff at the school. Several also sounded alarms over its proposal to give 7th and 8th graders enrollment priority if they are coming from one of three elementary schools within a mile of Charlestown High, which added those grades to its 9-12 grade sequence this fall. The three area elementary schools all enroll a much higher population of white students – 62 percent, 49 percent, and 30 percent – than the district as a whole. White students make up 15 percent of the overall district population, and they account for just 5 percent of the current study body at Charlestown High.
“This feels like a hostile takeover,” said Cecil Carey, another Charlestown High teacher, in testimony to the School Committee. “The unstated goal is to empty out a school of experienced teachers and families of color so they can use its resources,” he said, calling the proposal “an example of structural racism.”
Wilson, who now serves as executive director of the Shah Family Foundation, said the talk of a hostile takeover being attempted without engaging the school community badly mischaracterizes the effort. Wilson said he and the other parents who submitted the proposal wanted to begin a process of meeting with the community over the summer but were shut off from that at the direction of the School Department.
“We asked to engage with the students and staff back in August, and were told by the School Department that absolutely no, we could not engage with them,” Wilson said on a podcast he co-hosts that discusses Boston School Committee meetings. He said they finally had a meeting in October with member of Cassellius’s staff, but were told to put off plans for a innovation school proposal for a year or perhaps even longer.
Wilson said the group decided to push ahead with the submission now. “A lot of us are tired of waiting,” Wilson said of the problems facing Charlestown and other open enrollment high schools.
He said Charlestown High, which has already lost nearly 500 students over the last decade and now enrolls just over 800 students, is projected to see enrollment drop another 16 percent next year. “If left alone, it can’t flourish,” he said.
School Department spokesman Jonathan Palumbo, who insists there was no directive from Cassellius’s office against meeting with the plan proponents, said officials on the superintendent’s leadership team met with the proponents and made recommendations for a “robust community engagement plan” before receiving the proposal last month.
The proposal says all current Charlestown High School students would be offered seats under a new innovation school model. Going forward, the plan proposes that seats be filled citywide with special needs students, with remaining seats filled with students from across the city in proportion to the share of school-aged children in their neighborhood. Students from the three local feeder schools would get priority for 7th and 8th grade seats.
Edith Bazile, a former Boston school teacher and administrator and past president of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, praised elements of the plan, but raised concerns about the enrollment priority for certain elementary schools. “Charlestown High needs to be on a different trajectory,” she said. “I like the idea of the resources and benefits to students,” but the enrollment priority for local schools “is going to displace students in a racialized fashion.”
Roxann Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, also sounded alarms over the priority for the three elementary schools and raised concerns over plans to have all special education students learn in mainstream classrooms. “They have some great practices in there that will work for some children,” she said of the proposal. But as much as “inclusion” is the goal for most students, Harvey said some special education students need to be in a separate classroom to succeed.
The parents who submitted the proposal say they are open to discussions with the Charlestown High community about ways to tweak and adjust the proposal.
All four parents have students at the Elliot K-8 School in the North End – which is itself an innovation school. Karellis Rivera, a Latino parent of a student at the school and one of the four parents behind the proposal, said the only goal of the innovation school plan is to help improve Charlestown High and provide a model to help drive similar change at other open enrollment high schools.
Charlestown High has been using an inclusion model in classes for five years, said Rivera. “That should be enough time to show improvement, and we haven’t seen that,” she said.
Rivera said her son is doing well at the Eliot School, but she’s looking ahead to high school with worry. “My 10-year-old’s self-esteem is high because of inclusion,” she said. “I am terrified of what will happen if I can’t find a school where he will have the same treatment.”