Uproar over a Latin Academy move

Opponents argue Hyde Park site is too small, too far

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / September 2, 2011

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Teachers, parents, students, and alumni at Boston Latin Academy are mounting an aggressive campaign against moving the prestigious citywide exam school to Hyde Park - launching a website, collecting hundreds of signatures, and raising questions about whether the proposed site is large enough.

The campaign has gained momentum in the weeks after July 19, when Superintendent Carol R. Johnson stunned the Latin Academy community by proposing to move the school from its home of 20 years near the Roxbury-Dorchester line to the recently shuttered Hyde Park High School, just a few miles from the city’s border with Milton.

Opponents argue that the Hyde Park building is far too small to accommodate Latin Academy’s more than 1,700 students in grades 7 through 12. Hyde Park High was designed for 1,100 students, according to paperwork the School Department filed with the state for a $41 million renovation about a decade ago.

Opponents also contend that placing Latin Academy in Boston’s southern tip would be unfair to hundreds of students from East Boston, Charlestown, and other northern neighborhoods who they say could end up spending three to four hours a day commuting by public transit, greatly diminishing their experiences at one of the city’s best secondary schools.

“Moving to Hyde Park will be disastrous,’’ said Dmitry Smelansky, a software engineer from Brighton whose son is a ninth-grader. “He will spend four hours commuting. He won’t have time to do his homework. He will have to cancel after-school activities and sports.’’

School Department officials say that while the move would mean longer trips for some students, it would shorten commutes for others. They also acknowledge that Hyde Park High was designed for 1,100 students, but say some classrooms can be reconfigured to accommodate a larger student population - an assertion opponents dispute.

“I think there is adequate space,’’ Johnson said in an interview.

Admission to the school is considered a golden opportunity for many students in Boston. Latin Academy, which initially opened as an all-girls school in 1878, is one of three schools that require passing an entrance exam. The academy produces some of the highest MCAS scores in the state, and nearly all graduates enroll in college.

But Latin Academy often has lived in the shadow of Boston Latin School, the city’s top-ranked exam school, and Johnson’s proposal has rekindled a decades-long feeling by some that it is treated as “second-best’’ by school district officials.

While Latin School has graced the Fenway for decades in a regal building that emulates a private school, Latin Academy has bounced around the city and at one time took up residency in a former post office garage. The move to Hyde Park would be its seventh location.

Moving Latin Academy is part of Johnson’s broader plan to expand capacity at two other highly regarded city high schools. Under the plan, Boston Arts Academy, which shares a building with Fenway High School, would relocate to Latin Academy’s current building, after it has been renovated for dance, music, and theatre spaces.

Fenway High School would then absorb the space once occupied by Boston Arts.

The city has been under pressure from the Massachusetts School Building Authority to reactivate several empty school buildings that had undergone renovations in the past 20 years, such as Hyde Park High. If the buildings remain empty, the city could be forced to repay the state’s share of those project costs.

The state covered 90 percent of the $41 million renovation of Hyde Park - a project that the state and city are still paying off.

The city has until Sept. 30 to file a plan on reusing the buildings.

Johnson said this week that Hyde Park should be a good fit for Latin Academy.

The school’s current building has prompted complaints from parents about poor lighting, broken windows, peeling paint, water stains, and other problems.

“I think Hyde Park as a building is in better facility shape than Boston Latin Academy,’’ said Johnson.

Johnson said she will make a final decision on her proposal in the coming weeks, after wrapping up community meetings. Implementing the plan, she said, would not require a School Committee vote.

Some parents support the proposal.

“I think it’s a wonderful move,’’ said Kerry Castor, a West Roxbury parent. “They put money into the Hyde Park complex, and the students and teachers deserve to use it.’’

But many parents who pushed for renovations at Latin Academy never imagined that raising the issue would mean they might lose their building, said Connie Manzi, a West Roxbury parent who took photos of Latin Academy’s woeful conditions that were presented to Johnson when they met with her in May.

In fact, they believed they had made headway at the meeting because most of the lights and windows got fixed.

Then came Johnson’s announcement.

“We never asked for a new building,’’ Manzi said. “We just wanted the building to be better maintained and to have the things broken fixed.’’

Later she added, “We do feel betrayed.’’

Many parents, teachers, and other opponents have been poring over blueprints of the Hyde Park building. They contend that Johnson and her staff are overestimating the size of Hyde Park because they are misusing data.

The School Department says Latin Academy can fit at the Hyde Park site because it teaches more students per class than the old Hyde Park school. Department officials also point to Hyde Park’s inspection certificate from the city’s Inspectional Services Department, which specifies that a maximum number of 1,850 people can occupy the building.

But opponents counter that the occupancy rate is based on safety - not educational - standards to ensure a quick exit in an emergency.

This is not the first time Latin Academy has been upset about a move.

Parents protested voraciously in the 1980s against moving the school to its current site, expressing concerns about crime in the neighborhood and a lack of a subway stop.

But during the past two decades, the building, which once housed Boston Technical High School, has felt more and more like home.

Murals painted by students grace the auditorium; on a second-floor hallway, a teacher has mounted wall tiles painted by graduating seniors; and students this year planted an orchard.

Noting the condition of the aging building, Analiese Barnes-Classen, 16, a junior from Dorchester, said: “It’s worn with love. We complain so much about the building - it’s old - but no one wants to move.’’

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