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A class war divides Healey school

Posted by Marcia Dick  April 9, 2010 10:11 AM

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Danielle Dreilinger photos

Healey School principal Mike Sabin addresses the group.

One fact was indisputable: All 100 people gathered in the Healey library Monday wanted the school to succeed. But figuring out how is harder than reading your first chapter book.

After nearly 30 years of operating two separate K–6 educational programs, Somerville's K–8 Arthur D. Healey School is a house divided, and the administration will no longer stand for it. Amidst Scholastic posters and "Ranger Rick," kids' voices floating up from the playground, and the School Committee's long-range planning committee discussed controversial options for change.

Parents established the Choice program in the 1980s to be an alternative in the district, a progressive space centering on project-based learning. It has mixed grade-level classrooms  in two classes per grade  - two-thirds of the students - and is so popular, it has a lottery.

The rest of the students are in the so-called Neighborhood program. Most live nearby in the Mystic housing development. With only one class per grade, these students spend their days, nights, weekends, and summers together, said principal Mike Sabin. It "isn't healthy."

The unintended consequences? Divided parents, teachers, children, and resources, and stunted academic growth all around. "Fairness and excellence. They can't be separated. They have to be brought together," Sabin said, his voice shaking with passion. The status quo is "unacceptable."

"It shocked us, some of us, that students were growing in very unequal ways," said superintendent Tony Pierantozzi.

In 2009, 30 percent of the school's fourth graders scored proficient or higher on the English Language Arts MCAS, compared to 53 percent statewide; for math, the figures were 33 percent  vs. 48 percent statewide.

Statistics don't differentiate between the programs. Students do, though. Through focus groups, Sabin found, "They're aware that we've divided them from other students in a way that doesn't make sense to them."

meet2 copy.jpg But it's easier to see a problem than fix it. (And Sabin is taking over an underperforming Boston public school this fall after two years at the Healey.) He presented three options. The Healey could create a unified program, K through 8; Choice could move to a separate school; or the Healey could maintain two programs, with the current Neighborhood program expanded and rebranded to be a magnet in its own right.

Mayor Joe Curtatone said cost wasn't the primary concern. "Tell me the optimal solution," he urged Sabin. But Sabin refused, explaining only that each could be done well or poorly.

Four of the seven School Committee members are past or present Choice parents, chairman Mark Niedergang said: himself, Paul Bockelman, Adam Sweeting, and Christine Rafal.

Teacher representatives leaned toward unification. The seventh- and eighth-graders enjoy coming together, science teacher Peadar Dooley told the room. (Well, the ones who stay: afterward, teacher Lori Doherty and parent Maria West said many switch to Prospect Hill Academy, the city's charter school.)

Neighborhood teacher representative Anne Sutherland, who taught in Choice for many years, said her crew wanted unification but not "Choice-ification." They found those parents at times a little overbearing.

Choice rests on strong parent involvement, and you could see it right there in the room. When a committee member asked Neighborhood parents to identify themselves, less than 10 percent of the audience raised hands. Flyers went home in four languages and a parent recently started a cross-program dialogue project, but they were evidently no match for Choice's website, listserv, and parents council. Sabin pledged to get more input from the Neighborhood side and Rafal set office hours with a multilingual team.

One Neighborhood parent opted against Choice because she didn't have the time for that level of involvement, she said afterward, declining to give her name. The cross-program kaffeeklatch starts exactly when she has to be at work. Still, she said, "I want my kid to have a great education."

In addition, many Neighborhood parents have a language barrier or come from cultures where parents don't visit schools.

Complicating matters, Tufts representatives came to the meeting in a Trojan horse. They offered the Healey one-on-one literacy tutoring, student teachers, English professional development. and a pre-K summer program, among other treats - but only if the school unifies. If not, they'd likely work with a different school in the district, professor Christine McWayne said.

Still, Niedergang emphasized that they weren't set on unification. Pierantozzi requested more information on the two-school option.

The formal presentation ended but many parents stuck around to exhort committee reps and talk amongst themselves.

Is Choice necessary? In the last 30 years, education has caught up. "The defining aspects are not so defining anymore," said special education facilitator Dorothy Scally. "The teachers are using the same texts."

West considered that a problem. "There are more progressive models out there which we're not choosing to explore," she said. If Choice and Neighborhood combine, "I think it's possible that my kid will be asked to sit in a straight row and be quiet all day."

She didn't like the imbalance in the school, or the possibility that the split accentuated differences between social groups. She thought Choice could stand to ask why it wasn't attracting a wider range of students.

The committee hopes to spend the next school year in transition to - well, whatever comes next. However, Bockelman requested that they change one word in the handouts. Rather than a June 30 deadline, they have a June 30 goal.

For more information, visit The next meeting is May 13.

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