At school focus groups, parents voice concerns, call for more input

By David Abel and Sean Teehan
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / June 27, 2010

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They wanted to know how plans to merge schools would affect their children, what it means to have an effective principal and quality teachers, and whether administrators could limit the number of times students have to change schools.

Scores of parents detailed their frustrations and hopes for Boston Public Schools at 14 focus groups around the city yesterday, organized by administrators to solicit input about school closings, program changes, and other plans for the district.

At one early morning gathering in Roxbury, about a dozen parents met with school officials and said they hoped their concerns would not go ignored.

Tomas Gonzalez, 39, a Hyde Park father of two children in Dorchester schools, said he has been frustrated with confusing mailings from the district. His main priority, he said, is for school officials to hire and train effective teachers and promote greater parent engagement.

“I think it remains to be seen whether this process will really do anything,’’ he said. “We need a real relationship with our schools, not one where a few people get together every now and then.’’

The private nature of the meetings — 15 to 20 people had been invited to each one — had sparked criticism from community groups and parents, who worried that many people would be left out of the discussions of how the district addresses declining enrollment that has left thousands of seats empty amid financial hard times. But officials had said that people who came uninvited would be allowed in.

The district faces a $57 million budget gap in fiscal 2012.

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said early last week that the focus groups, organized by her office, would allow her staff to hear from a variety of parents and groups, including the Boston Parents Organizing Network, the Vietnamese Students and Parents Council, Sociedad Latina, the Boston Haitian Parents Association, the Coalition of Neighborhood Schools, and the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. She insisted the focus groups are only one of several ways the district is seeking the views of the community.

“The work we are undertaking can’t be done by school personnel alone,’’ Johnson said. “What we hear from parents and other community members will help us make decisions that will affect an entire generation of students and their families.’’

Most of yesterday’s meetings began at 8 a.m. with a videotaped greeting from Johnson, who outlined her plans to redesign services for the district’s 56,000 students in 135 schools. She said her staff will host additional meetings in September before submitting a plan to the School Committee in late October.

In Roslindale, 12 mothers came to a meeting at the Roslindale Community Center, about half of whom showed up without an invitation. They expressed concerns about the district’s placement policies, which require parents to enter their children into a lottery to determine what school they will attend.

Anastasia Kerosrulos-Vekierides worried about the toll it takes on her children to change schools multiple times. “I’m sure kids are resilient, but that’s a big fear,’’ she said.

Schools that require students to pass exams to gain entrance, “exam schools,’’ also came into question at the meeting.

Laura Spark voiced concern about the toll the pressure of the system might take on children.

“There has to be more than one way to succeed, and these kids who don’t get into the exam schools feel like enormous failures,’’ she said. “That’s a lot to put on a fourth-grader.’’

Jill Maguire agreed. “There needs to be . . . more of a celebration that kids are different,’’ she said. “Why aren’t we providing more options for our kids?

At the Yawkey Club of Roxbury, the parents built a wish list that included every school in the district offering the same classes as the acclaimed Boston Latin School, encouraging students to be leaders, ensuring principals have vision, and building a curriculum that makes clear what students need to learn by the time they graduate.

Richard Mitchell, 36, a father of four students from Mattapan, said he wanted to be part of the dialogue to improve his children’s schools.

“My priority is to make sure all parents and students are engaged, and that there’s a high expectation of success for all students,’’ he said.

Hope Fitzgerald, 43, a mother of one student from Dorchester, sent two of her older children to suburban schools through the Metco program. She was hoping that her experience would be better with Boston schools.

“It hasn’t been easy,’’ she said. “There’s been a lot of struggle.’’

She wants to ensure that the district preserves music and art programs.

“We need to encourage our students so that they want to go to school,’’ she said. “I hope that we will be heard. It’s discouraging when nothing changes.’’

David Abel can be reached at Sean Teehan can be reached at

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