Parents to protest as school closings loom

City letter offers option of other low-ranking schools

Kiana Lynch, 4 (left), and Shanon Osorio, 5, played in an East Zone Early Learning Center class last week in Dorchester. Under Superintendent Carol R. Johnson’s proposal, the school would be dismantled. Kiana Lynch, 4 (left), and Shanon Osorio, 5, played in an East Zone Early Learning Center class last week in Dorchester. Under Superintendent Carol R. Johnson’s proposal, the school would be dismantled. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / October 26, 2010

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In an open letter to Boston families, Superintendent Carol R. Johnson lauded her recommendation to close six low-performing schools as a way to “move students into schools and classrooms that get results.’’

But in many cases, Johnson is urging affected parents to choose schools for their children next fall that are faring about the same as, or worse than, their current schools. In letters sent earlier this month, she encouraged some parents to enroll their children in schools the state has designated as underperforming.

Around the city, the letters are adding further insult to parents, students, and staff of the schools slated to close, who dispute the district’s characterization of their schools as low performing and are fighting to keep them open. They pledge to turn out en masse, many coming by rented bus, at tonight’s School Committee meeting at English High School in Jamaica Plain, where Johnson is scheduled to present a revised proposal.

Tanjirene Smith — whose 5-year-old son attends the East Zone Early Learning Center in Dorchester, which could close at year’s end — received one of the letters, which contained referrals for two underperforming elementary schools, the John P. Holland and the William Monroe Trotter in Dorchester.

“It’s appalling,’’ said Smith, who plans to send her son to a charter or parochial school next year if the district proceeds with the closing.

Johnson emphasized in an interview that parents can choose any school in their student assignment areas and that the schools mentioned in the letters were merely suggestions. She defended her recommendation of underperforming schools, saying that changes in leadership, staff, and curriculum, along with the infusion of hundreds of thousands of dollars, hold promise for a turnaround.

“I can’t say today we have better results in those schools, but we believe the investments we have made will pay huge dividends in terms of student performance,’’ Johnson said.

In his quest to overhaul public education, President Obama has been urging superintendents around the country to revamp failing schools and, in some cases, shut them down and send students to higher-performing schools.

But the noble goal has sparked a question: In places such as Boston, where standardized test scores at many schools fall below state averages, exactly what is a higher-performing school? Is it a school where students score a few, or many, points higher?

At minimum, some education advocates question whether the underperforming schools should enroll more students.

“Let’s give them a chance to prove themselves before adding to their challenges,’’ said John Mudd of Massachusetts Advocates for Children, which works on behalf of disadvantaged students. “Adding students to those schools could be a burden.’’

In the letters, Johnson did not mention that any of the recommended schools had been designated as underperforming earlier this year.

Nor did she note that most have test scores that have been falling short of federal improvement targets, requiring principals of those schools to notify parents annually about their right, under federal law, to attend a higher-performing school.

Rather, Johnson focused on the positive. In a letter informing parents about the proposal to close the Roger Clap Elementary School in Dorchester, Johnson said the students “will be given priority next year at a much higher-performing elementary school.’’

She then shared some information about the recommended schools, noting the Mather School’s new library and playground, the Edward Everett School’s art and music programs, and the William E. Russell Elementary School’s significant academic progress and math game nights.

A Globe review confirmed that the three recommended schools scored better than the Clap last spring on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests. In English, for instance, 34 percent of Clap students failed, which was at least 16 percentage points higher than the failure rates of the three others.

But like the Clap, overall academic performance in recent years at the three other schools ranks in the bottom 20 percent for the state, making all the schools eligible for an underperforming designation, according to state data.

“Obviously, the problem doesn’t stem from each individual school,’’ said Kenny Jervis, a Clap parent organizer who has also analyzed testing data. “When you get these low numbers across the city, it’s the overall system that is failing.’’

Parents at the Ralph Waldo Emerson School in Roxbury were offered a wide variety of choices. The options included the Samuel W. Mason Elementary School and the Martin Luther King Jr. K-8 School, which are in good standing with the state, and two underperforming schools, the William Blackstone Elementary School and the Orchard Gardens K-8 School.

The East Zone Early Learning Center, parents learned in their letters, would be dismantled. Preschool programs would be relocated to the underperforming Holland and Trotter schools, while children in other grade levels would also be given preference to attend those schools.

The recommendations struck a nerve.

“I’m really upset,’’ said Iwona Wolska, whose 6-year-old son is in first grade. She said she feels worse for parents of the younger students. “I’m concerned about the school bus, putting a 4-year-old on a bus with a 12-year-old.’’

The learning center’s parents and staff are trying to persuade Johnson to keep the school open and relocate it to one of the elementary schools that have closed in recent years. The learning center is trying for national accreditation, and its current location, formerly used by the district’s food service program, might not meet standards.

“We have a waiting list of over 200 students,’’ said Andrea Newsome, a kindergarten teacher. “The early learning center has been in existence since 1986 and has been a model to open early education centers in all sections of Boston. Why shut us down if we are doing something right?’’

James Vaznis can be reached at

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