City wants to relocate two high schools

Seeks to create more seats

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / July 19, 2011

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Less than a month after Boston closed the former Hyde Park High School, the city is seeking to reopen the building in fall 2012 as the new home of Boston Latin Academy, under an ambitious proposal being announced today to increase capacity at several popular schools.

The Latin Academy building near the Roxbury-Dorchester line would undergo considerable renovations and eventually house the Boston Arts Academy, which has been sharing a building across from Fenway Park with Fenway High School. Splitting those two popular schools would allow both to serve more students.

The proposal also calls for expanding the Eliot K-8 School in the North End, which has a long waiting list of students, and creating two new in-district charter elementary schools.

School officials say the goal is to provide more high-quality educational opportunities for stu dents and parents so they do not flee to private schools or independently run state charter schools. Students often leave the school district if they fail to gain entry to the schools slated for expansion, said Boston schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson.

“We are trying to be responsive and accountable for using the resources of the city well and making sure the right matches are there,’’ Johnson said in an interview. “Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to create opportunity and access wherever we can to the best schools possible for our children.’’

She will present the proposal to the School Committee tomorrow night. She said the board would probably vote on it in the fall, although the charter school proposals will need preliminary approval tomorrow night.

The proposed expansions come just weeks after Boston closed or merged about 18 schools in an effort to reduce operating expenses and a surplus of space at many schools across the city, a consequence of a sharp decline in enrollment across the system.

But the city has subsequently faced pressure from the Massachusetts School Building Authority to reactivate about a half-dozen schools that have undergone renovations, paid for largely with state funds.

Yesterday, the authority warned school officials in a letter that it will cut off funding or recoup past payments for renovations at about a half-dozen shuttered schools if the buildings remain idle. The school district must submit a plan for using the buildings for K-12 programs by Sept. 30.

Of particular concern is the $41 million renovation of Hyde Park High about a decade ago; 90 percent of that work was covered by the state. Nearly $13 million in state payments remain on that project.

When briefed about Johnson’s proposal by the Globe yesterday, Katherine Craven, the building authority’s executive director, said it sounded promising but she would have to examine it more closely before making any decisions.

“As long as the sizes of buildings are appropriate, I think it’s a great new plan,’’ Craven said.

Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a fiscal watchdog funded by business and nonprofits, said he supported the reopening of the Hyde Park building.

“To invest that much money and then close Hyde Park makes no sense,’’ Tyler said.

But he said he believes the city will have to look at closing other schools because the most recent round of closures last month did not go far enough in addressing the excess capacity that exists across the city.

Two parent leaders at Latin Academy said they were eager to find out to what extent the Hyde Park facility may be better than the school’s current site, which they said has an array of building issues from holes in the ceiling to aging science labs. Latin Academy is one of three city schools that require students to pass an admission exam.

“We would have to see the complex and find out what it offers,’’ said Rosalind James, a Dorchester parent who chairs the academy’s parent council.

The parent leaders expressed concern that moving the school to the city’s southernmost neighborhood could present transportation challenges for students coming from East Boston and the city’s other northern neighborhoods.

“People in East Boston would be profoundly affected,’’ said Connie Manzi, a West Roxbury resident who is treasurer of Friends of Boston Latin Academy, a fund-raising group. “Right now it takes them about an hour to get to school. . . . One thing we are proud of is we have a diverse group and we don’t want to exclude anyone if we moved.’’

Johnson said moving Latin Academy to Hyde Park made sense because the school was renovated to accommodate a traditional large high school program, although recently it had been used by three small high schools.

By contrast, any building for Boston Arts Academy would have to undergo a renovation to create space for dance and visual arts studios, soundproof music rooms, and theater space. In doing that work, Johnson said, any deficiencies in Latin Academy’s current building could be remedied.

A cost estimate for renovations has not been generated, but Craven said the school building authority is willing to explore options with Boston, which could possibly make the project eligible for some state reimbursements.

At one point, Boston Arts sought to build a new building in the Theatre District, but the project unraveled, and the school has been looking for an alternative location.

Linda Nathan, founding headmaster of Boston Arts, said she was looking forward to moving into the Latin Academy building, which would allow Boston Arts to increase its high school enrollment and to finally add a middle school program. It’s not clear when the relocation would occur; the renovation would probably have to come first.

Nathan said the current Latin Academy site, located near the Grove Hall area, is better situated for her school’s students - about 80 percent of whom live in Roxbury, Dorchester, or Mattapan - and would also allow the school to form a partnership with the Strand Theatre in Uphams Corner, providing students a professional stage on which to perform.

Plans for the elementary school changes are less concrete.

The city is trying to identify a new location for the Eliot K-8 so it can enroll more students. Until then, Johnson said, the city is trying to find a temporary location to house additional classrooms.

Locations also have not been finalized for the two in-district charter elementary schools, which would operate with greater freedom from central office mandates and teacher union contract rules.

One in-district charter school would be created by the Boston Teacher Residency program, a teacher-training program. The other would replace an academically struggling school and would be operated by Unlocking Potential, an outside management organization that already is running an in-district charter middle school.

“We want to keep trying to identify excellent programs that parents would want to choose,’’ Johnson said.

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeVaznis.