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Bias is alleged in school closings

US investigating Boston’s plan; blacks, Latinos said to bear brunt

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / March 1, 2011

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The US Department of Education is investigating a complaint that the Boston school system’s plan to close or merge more than a dozen schools to save money discriminates against black and Latino students and their parents.

The complaint was brought Jan. 25 by the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association, alleging a significant disparity in the races of students who would be affected by the school district’s plan. The School Committee approved the plan in December as a way to help plug a $63 million budget gap.

“Historically, disproportionate numbers of school closings have occurred in the predominantly black neighborhoods of the city,’’ said Nora Toney, president of the Black Educators’ Alliance. “The school closings have had a profound impact on our students, families, and community, creating constant disruption, instability, and uncertainty, while failing to provide the quality schools promised by the district.’’

The complaint asks federal authorities to investigate what options the school district had, other than closing schools. In a Feb. 15 letter, the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights told the alliance that, although it was not making judgment at the time, it would look into the matter.

According to the complaint, 46 percent of the students who will be affected by the school closures are black, 44 percent are Latino, and 5 percent are white. In contrast, black students make up 36 percent of the school population, Latinos 41 percent, and white students 13 percent.

Also, the complaint alleges, the school closings affect a disproportionate number of students in low-income neighborhoods such as Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, compared with neighborhoods serving higher percentages of white students, such as West Roxbury, Roslindale, and Brighton.

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said yesterday that the plan is the “best chance of success for all 56,000 students in Boston public schools.’’ She said that the schools slated to close were chosen because they have been struggling academically, are in disrepair, or rank among the lowest picked for attendance by families.

Johnson also argued that the district has been expanding choices in higher-performing schools and improving underperforming schools in the communities at issue.

“We would be doing a great disservice to continue to serve young people in these schools when we have better options available,’’ said Johnson, adding that she is looking forward to working with the investigation. “Frankly, it would be more appropriate for us to be questioned of wrongdoing had we chosen to maintain the status quo.’’

Johnson’s plan could save $10 million in the next school year and reduce by a quarter the thousands of empty classroom seats scattered across the city.

“We are not suggesting that the district continue to blindly pour money into schools that have been identified as failing,’’ said Rahsaan Hall, a staff attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “However, we are concerned that the burden of making these improvements overwhelmingly falls on the backs of black and brown children in the city.’’

The schools to be closed include: the Agassiz Elementary in Jamaica Plain; the Alighieri Elementary in East Boston; the Emerson Elementary in Roxbury; the East Zone Early Learning Center, Fifield Elementary and Middle School Academy, all in Dorchester; the Farragut Elementary in Mission Hill; and the Hyde Park Education Complex, meaning the loss of two small high schools there, the Engineering School and the Social Justice Academy.

Eight schools that share buildings would also be merged.

The plan had faced fierce opposition from teachers and parents at neighborhood meetings.

In the complaint, the Black Educators’ Alliance asserts there are several ways that black and Latino students would be unfairly affected by the plan. For instance, the group asked why accredited high schools where black and Latino students are in the majority would be merged into schools that are not accredited. And it asks whether the plan will crowd black and Latino students into schools with larger class sizes, while keeping small class sizes for white students.

The group also asked whether the district has properly established English-language learner programs for students being moved from the Agassiz, Emerson, and the Engineering School.

Last year, federal officials investigated the Boston school district to determine if students’ civil rights were violated because the district failed to provide specialized language instruction for those who speak limited English. The district reached an agreement in October to overhaul programs and bolster teacher training, and Johnson said that many changes were in place by the time the agreement was made.

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said yesterday that his group supports the Black Educators’ Alliance complaint. He said Johnson’s reorganization plan was rushed with no consideration for different neighborhoods or the students in those communities.

“It was a mistake to close these schools,’’ he said, adding that several targeted schools were performing far better than some that are not being closed. “There were just too many criticisms of the plan that resonated, that made sense.’’

The complaint found support yesterday with several parents of students at the Emerson school.

“People need to voice their opinions on this; silence isn’t going to get anything done,’’ said Cassie Stapleberg, who has five children in the city’s school system, including a son who is a first-grader at Emerson.

Kaia Roebuck, 31, of Dorchester, standing with her 6-year-old son after school let out, said: “It’s sad. [City school officials] are not focused on these inner-city kids.’’

Globe correspondent Matt Rocheleau contributed to this report. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.