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During a visit to the New Boston Pilot Middle School this month, Mayor Thomas M. Menino greeted academy leader DaQuall Graham, while students La’Shee Branch (L) and Curissa Dunbar waited to meet him.
During a visit to the New Boston Pilot Middle School this month, Mayor Thomas M. Menino greeted academy leader DaQuall Graham, while students La’Shee Branch (L) and Curissa Dunbar waited to meet him. (Globe Staff Photo / David Kamerman)

An uphill battle for better schools

Despite increased stability, only modest improvements

Almost 10 years ago, Mayor Thomas M. Menino stood before an audience in Dorchester's troubled Jeremiah E. Burke High School and challenged Boston to ''judge me harshly" if the schools did not improve.

It was one of many instances in his 12-year tenure when the mayor promised to turn around the city's school system by raising standards for all students, fixing run-down buildings, flooding schools with computers, and holding teachers accountable for student performance.

One of the first mayors in the country to wield power over a large urban school system, Menino has had at hand many of the ingredients needed for success: an influx of state money for education in the early 1990s, a hand-picked School Committee, and a new superintendent of his choosing.

By many measures, the schools have improved under Menino, but the change has been modest at best. A significant number of students are struggling just to pass state tests, and more than 40 percent of the system's 139 schools aren't meeting federal standards because of low test scores and too little improvement.

Even those who applaud the mayor's spending of political capital on education say that, in perhaps the most telling measure, he has yet to persuade more families to send their children to Boston's schools. Enrollment in the 57,700-student school system has dropped 9 percent since 1993, a larger decline than in any other big urban system in the state.

A review of test scores and state Department of Education reports found:

Boston public schools' scores on the state MCAS tests have been steadily rising, but more than half of the city's students still score at the bottom levels, meaning that they are failing or need to improve in reading, writing, and math. Boston's MCAS test scores ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the state last year.

The dropout rate has improved since Menino became mayor in 1993, when about 27 percent of high school students quit before graduation. By 2003, the dropout rate had fallen to 21 percent.

In 1996, the mayor pledged to provide one computer for every four students. Today the ratio is 1 to 5. But that includes older computers. Remove them, and the ratio worsens to 1 to 8.

''There's been a methodical, incremental approach to improving the Boston public schools," said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which gives money to city school initiatives. ''But the overall picture is still pretty grim."

No one, though, disputes that Menino has staked his reputation on the city's schools, embraced that focus, and helped bring stability to a once tumultuous school system. In the past, there was frequent superintendent turnover and an elected School Committee torn by political infighting.

Menino, who has four grandchildren in city schools, became the second Boston mayor, after his predecessor Raymond L. Flynn fought for the change, to appoint the entire seven-member board. Menino has won national acclaim from urban school groups for the school system's steady progress.

''He has his finger pretty much on the pulse," said Carol Bradley Moore, Burke's headmaster. ''He's gone to bat for the schools in a way that other city mayors may not have done."

Menino, little more than two years after his election, singled out Burke as the school needing the greatest transformation. In 1995, the Dorchester high school had lost its accreditation because of shabby facilities, poor instruction, and inadequate guidance counseling.

At the time, gangs ruled Burke's hallways, said Steven Leonard, a former headmaster brought in to fix the school. Cigarette and marijuana smoke permeated the air. Shoes stuck to the soiled floors.

''When the bell rang, teachers walked into the corridors and snatched kids they thought were salvageable and shut the door," Leonard said. ''It wasn't just an academic mess. It was a structural mess."

When Menino visited the school in 1995, a chunk of the auditorium ceiling fell and brushed his shoulder.

Furious, Menino doubled the high school's budget to $5 million. The school hired more teachers and counselors. The city put in another $5 million to fix the crumbling school before it reopened in the fall.

In January 1996, the mayor delivered his State of the City address from the Burke auditorium, now renovated with stone columns and silver grating. He promised to raise academic standards in all public schools and make Burke the ''pride of Boston."

''I want to be judged as your mayor by what happens now in the Boston public schools," he declared that night. ''If I fail to bring about these specific reforms by the year 2001, then judge me harshly."

Promises met, at firstAt first, the mayor's pledges seemed to be coming to fruition at Burke.

The school regained its accreditation in 1998. Its proudest moment occurred in 2001, when each member of the graduating class was accepted into college.

''In 2001, I thought I had won the war," said Leonard, now an education consultant.

Once the Burke appeared on track, budget cuts eliminated the money that had lowered class sizes, paid for teacher training, and hired counselors. The school has lost 37 staff members since 2001, said Moore, the current headmaster. Six people used to track down truants; now, only one does.

One student said classmates cut her algebra class so frequently that she's not even sure how many are supposed to be there.

''Sometimes it's just me and my teacher," said Renee Brown, a freshman from Mattapan. ''If they come, they play around and be rude. You can see them today, and you don't see them again until next month."

Students curse at teachers, listen to music, and talk on the phone in class, or they roam the halls, according to several students interviewed at Burke.

The school Menino once wanted to shine above the rest has the highest failure rate on the English MCAS of Boston's regular high schools; it has the third-highest failure rate in math. Last year, more than half of its sophomores flunked the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams.

''It bothers me that it has happened," Menino said in an interview last week. ''We're going to make that great once again. . . . As mayor, I take a huge responsibility for this education piece, but we as a government can't do it all."

Burke's lackluster performance adds to the frustrations of some parents and students with the school system. They say they're upset by the huge academic disparities that persist among Boston's public schools.

Students can receive a prep school education at Boston Latin School, with nearly two dozen advanced placement classes, but they have access to just a couple of college-level classes at West Roxbury, East Boston, and Hyde Park high schools.

Daliza Nova, 16, a junior at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, and other Boston students have been pushing the school system to hire more guidance counselors and lower the dropout rate. Nova praises her school, but says the city high schools her cousins attend ''don't really expect much."

Parents fight to get into a small number of good schools, said Peggy Wiesenberg, a member of the Citywide Parents Council.

More than half of the students at Boston Latin, the most sought-after school, are white, though the district is only 14 percent white. The school, which admits students based on a test and grades, also has the highest college-going rate in the system, 96 percent.

The percentage of Boston students heading to college, something the mayor frequently touts, has been a high point. According to a Northeastern University study, 74 percent of the Class of 2003 enrolled in a four-year college, community college, or technical school. In 1990, 65 percent enrolled in college or a training program.

But the rate varies by school. At Burke, 72 percent of students enrolled in college. But at Hyde Park High, the rate was 65 percent; at East Boston High, it was 55 percent.

''They haven't replicated the pockets of excellence, and they've had 10 years to do it," said Wiesenberg, who sent three children to Boston public schools.

Many families left system In 1996, Menino promised that all students would demonstrate real skill in writing, reading, and math and that good schools would keep young families in the city and provide businesses with skilled workers.

Maura A. Hennigan, a City Council member and former teacher running against the mayor in November, said that although test scores have risen, ''in some instances, there was no place to go but up." At Burke, for example, more than 90 percent of the students failed the MCAS the first time it was given in 1998.

Boston is losing its middle-class and affluent parents and becoming a highly segregated, high-poverty school system, Hennigan said. The charter schools that compete with the city's public schools are full. The enrollment of white students has plunged the most, from roughly 12,000 students in 1993 to 8,000 this year, a decrease of more than 30 percent. Most of Boston's students are black or Hispanic, and nearly three-fourths of them come from low-income families.

Some Beacon Hill parents said the mayor lost an opportunity to keep some middle-class families in the system when he refused to buy a building from Emerson College to add a public school closer to their homes. A private school bought the building, said real estate broker Thomas Dooley, who has enrolled all but his eldest child at the new Park Street School.

Menino said more children needed schools in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan than on Beacon Hill.

In recent years, the school system has done more to attract families, including expanding preschools, opening more K-8 schools, and creating innovative pilot schools with longer school days and other attributes, Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant said in an interview.

''If the reference point is just Boston all by itself or compared with the suburban districts around us, we don't shine as much as we would like," said Payzant, who plans to retire next year. ''But we're still continuing to make some progress. Could it be faster? We'd all like it to be faster."

The school system, as the mayor had wanted, negotiated with the teachers' union to make student performance a factor in the evaluation of teachers whose students had low test scores.

''Teachers hand in a weekly chart showing what they did, when they did it, how they did it," said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union. ''There is more attention paid now to what goes on every day every minute in every classroom. We would say sometimes too much attention."

Education specialists acknowledge that management alone can't improve an urban school system. Parents, teachers, students, and social and economic conditions all can affect whether a school succeeds or fails. A mayor, by what he says and where he pushes for money to be spent, can at least force some changes.

''People said I was crazy putting so much of my political stock into schools," Menino said. ''I knew some of these goals we wouldn't achieve, but you have to have goals to try to move the system forward. Otherwise, you'd just be floating."

Tracy Jan can be reached at Maria Sacchetti can be reached at

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