There will be no school closings. Charter schools will not supplant public schools.
Boston's Chief of Education Rahn Dorsey and Boston Compact Chief Collaborator Rachel Weinstein made those two statements clear at the sixth in a series of neighborhood meetings this fall to test out the idea of uniform enrollment and receive feedback from parents.
The meeting drew more attention than previous ones due to an article published in Esquire magazine earlier in the week that accused Boston Mayor Marty Walsh of wanting to close Boston Public Schools and move charter schools into the buildings. Walsh quickly disputed the Esquire magazine piece, calling it "...untrue and unsourced, and references meetings that the Mayor has never had."
That rumor still hung over Thursday's meeting, held at the First Church of Jamaica Plain. According to several participants, the JP meeting was attended by more people than any previous meeting, with some parents coming from other neighborhoods.
The Boston Compact was originally created by Mayor Thomas Menino to bring the three sectors of Boston Public Schools, charter schools and parochial together to discuss best practices and ways they could work together. Unified enrollment was not the purpose of the Boston Compact or a proposal until September before Walsh made it in September.
Dorsey recently spoke on the Boston Neighborhood Network News about the Compact, saying the mayor wants to create an "enrollment in one place, with one application and with one deadline."
The full house of parents with some teachers and administrators scattered throughout was enthusiastic, very curious, polite, but very cautious. They were especially concerned about equity; for most a unified enrollment system that merges public and charter schools must have an equitable curriculum and discipline program.
The meeting was moderated by Moacir Barbosa of Health Resources in Action, retained by the Boston Compact to provide informational services; HRA provided everyone with a fat folder of fact sheets.
But Dorsey led the meeting. "This is a conversation about ideas," he said. "We are very much in the idea stage." He added that he and the mayor are particularly concerned about two types of students: those in English Language Learning (ELL) and those in special education programs.
He admitted, "The thinking is incomplete. We don't have all the details. We've been hearing that we are not giving more details."
The first part of the meeting involved breaking into tables for discussion. Barbosa encouraged many of those around the edges to join a table and asked that they spend a few minutes to talk about the experience of enrolling their child in Boston Public Schools.
The answers were varied; one table said the old system worked find and they were happy with BPS; another said the application was "a long and winding road" and overwhelming. A third was worried about school closings.
Weinstein briefly described uniform enrollment, meaning that charter schools would forgo their lottery enrollment process and become part of the BPS enrollment system.
"We've spent a lot of time talking with educators," said Weinstein. "These meetings begin the conversation with you the parents. We spent lot of time trying to understand if a collaboration [between charter and public schools with support from Catholic school administrators] would work."
"The Compact wants to get comparable information for any type of school. We want to balance the marketing of the schools... to make that more fair. There is a highly contentious marketing of schools right now. We want to keep that animosity to a minimum," she added.
High schools are not part of the unified enrollment plan, as they are already citywide. Catholic schools (of which there are 26 in Boston with an enrollment of 7,706 students) are part of the Compact partnership to provide guidance about best education practices and curriculum , but they are private schools and will not be part of unified enrollment.
They also don't have a uniform definition for ELL and special needs students according to one of the information sheets in the packet.
The information sheet listed the number of schools in the city and the demographic breakdown. There are 126 Boston public schools with an enrollment of 57,000 students. There are 24 charter schools with 8,700 students. The majority of African-American students in the city attend charter schools -- 53% as compared to 36% in public schools. The majority of Asian, Hispanic and caucasian students, as well as ELL and special needs students, attend public schools.
Weinstein said that the unified enrollment study will work regardless of any cap on charter schools. She added that 75% of the charter schools must participate for the unified enrollment plan to work.
There would be shared costs with the unified enrollment; the BPS will not budget the entire enrollment process. Transportation is an example. The BPS provides school buses for both public and charter schools, but varying school start times was proving expensive. Yet simply by coordinating bell times has been an enormous cost savings.
The audience was very engaged, paying close attention and asking specific questions. One parent asked how the school system could be unified when some neighborhood schools are not performing well. Dorsey admitted that not all schools are the same quality, but his goal was to make all schools perform well for all students.
Several parents spoke about their frustrations with finding the proper programs for their special needs children. Again the concern about equity was raised: Will all students at all learning levels be given the same education under this new plan? Dorsey said that the goal is to have an accurate list of special needs programs available for each school.
One participant in the back was very upset. "This will have a tremendous impact. There has been no outreach to parents about these meetings. This meeting is packed because we have our own networks. We spread the word. WE never heard from the BPS. This is OUR school system!"
In response an audience member said that principals were concerned about passing out fliers -- especially bilingual fliers to their students. There is a lack of paper supplies, she said.
A questioner quizzed Weinstein about foundation support and who controls the Compact agenda of that foundation money.
Weinstein replied that $3.25 million came from the Gates Foundation. Other funders listed on the Boston Compact website are the Barr Foundation, The Boston Foundation, Lynch Foundation, The Boston Opportunity Agenda and Strategic Growth Partners. She said that the funds were spent on staffing (there are two full-time staff members), start up expenses and technology. She added that foundations do not make policy.
"Policy decisions will be made by the school committee, the charter school boards and Catholic school administrators," said Weinstein.
One parent asked about curriculum, stating that schools have different curriculums. and that she wanted to see a uniform curriculum.
Dorsey said that BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang wants a rigorous high-quality curriculum at all schools.
A questioner wanted to be confident that discipline would be consistent in a unified system. "Unfortunately discipline is one of the real problems in the schools," Dorsey said. But he assured the audience that it was a priority of the Compact, and that will include parents and school advocates.
"We are at the beginning of deciding how to involve parents," said Weinstein said, adding the Boston Compact wants to build the same relationships with parents that it now has with teachers and administrators in the three school systems.
There are 77,000 students in Boston schools with 72% in BPS. Weinstein and Dorsey both recognized that parents and school advocates have been highly dedicated to the success of the public schools and the Boston Compact wants to build on that hard work and include them in the next steps to determine how to make a unified enrollment system work.
She repeated the Boston Compact wants to build equity among the public and charter schools in standardized curriculum and uniform discipline with special attention on ELL and special needs students.
The last community meeting will be on Nov. 17 in Allston.