Recently, I attended a community meeting where I was one voice in a diverse chorus of stakeholders tasked with closing schools I knew nothing about.
Of course, this was not the task-as-presented, but it became the task-as-enacted. And ever since walking out the door, I have been asking myself how it happened and whether it is possible to responsibly balance the virtues and risks of a broad-based consensus-building process. I have been asking these questions in part because I do not want to have to explain to the teachers, students, and families at the Mason School why five people who have only ever driven by their school agreed to recommend closing it. Writing this is my mea culpa.
To take a few steps back: the meeting was one of 12 public meetings to gather feedback on the 10-year Facilities Master Plan for the Boston Public Schools (also known as “Build BPS”). At each meeting, school department officials presented an overview of the $1 billion effort to overhaul the 127 city-owned school buildings and then engaged attendees in an exercise in which they reviewed the results of a facilities audit and provided “consensus” feedback on what projects ought to be prioritized for a handful of nearby schools.
At my table, there were five people: a teacher at the Frederick Middle School (where the meeting was held), a community member on the Frederick’s governing board, a parent of a student at the O’Bryant exam high school, a member of the alumni board at Madison Park, the city’s only vocational/technical high school, and me. I came as a resident of Roxbury and a parent of preschool children who will one day soon attend BPS. I was also the only white person. We were given a worksheet summarizing the conditions at 11 schools in Roxbury and Dorchester. We were also given 12 stickers we could “spend” on facilities improvements. There were four options for spending: repair (1 sticker), renovate (2 stickers), expand (3 stickers, only available for schools with room to expand), and build (4 stickers). Notably, there was no “close” option. The different “prices” presumably reflected the limited resources available and the need to weigh trade-offs and make hard choices. Asked to be mindful of the district’s (sometimes competing) priorities, we were tasked with interpreting the information we had, making recommendations, and explaining our reasoning. We had 30 minutes. It was very hard.
The effort to overhaul school facilities is a noble one and grounded in empirical research that suggests factors like air quality, noise, temperature, and spatial configuration impact student performance. Research has also found that facility quality affects teachers’ decisions about whether to stay or change schools. And yet, despite these findings, persistent underinvestment in public school infrastructure has made it difficult to bring school buildings up to ambitious 21st century standards for optimal learning environments.
The evidence of this underinvestment abounds in Boston. As Mayor Marty Walsh pointed out in January 2017, 65 percent of district-owned schools were built prior to World War II, many of them with little if any room for expansion. And while school age alone is an imperfect proxy for facility quality, the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), relying on a legislative statute to specify terms of municipal lending, assumes a school’s “useful life” to be 30 years, which means that many BPS buildings are on their second or third lifetime. The Mason, built in 1905, is closing in on its fourth. In addition, according to the BPS facilities audit, the Mason was in the worst condition relative to nearby schools. Of the four categories on the audit (building, site, learning environment, and spaces), three at the Mason were rated “poor.” No other school on our worksheet had more than one category rated poor.
On paper, then, the decision to close the Mason seemed obvious. Technically, we recommended a merger, but the effect was the same. Specifically, someone in the group – maybe more than one – suggested spending three stickers to expand the nearby Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School in order to accommodate Mason students, whose school would then be closed. The reasoning was that both school buildings were old and in need of a major upgrade, but the Dudley Street – unlike the Mason – had room for growth. However, as anyone with a cursory awareness of Boston school politics might agree, this proposal is likely a non-starter because of Dudley Street’s status as an in-district charter school and a teaching academy for the Boston Teacher Residency. With this in mind, I made only meek objections but nothing strong enough to stand in the way.
But almost as soon as I agreed to the recommendation, I regretted it. As someone who has written about the need to proceed cautiously and with care when closing schools and as someone whose work is premised on the idea that schools are beloved communities and not factories, I knew better than to be beguiled by data worksheets and talk of efficiency. I am not opposed to the idea that sometimes schools should be closed or merged, but I am opposed to a process where a school with no one to speak for it has someone like me – a community member eager to be engaged but with no stakes in or deep knowledge of the school – weighing in on its future.
And so, as part of my penance, I’ve taken it upon myself to learn more about the Samuel W. Mason Pilot Elementary School. It is worth celebrating. A small school serving a higher proportion of economically disadvantaged and high needs students than the district as a whole, the Mason is one of only a handful of full inclusion schools in Boston. Inclusion is widely considered beneficial for students with and without special needs and the co-teaching model at the Mason places two teachers in each classroom, allowing students to get more individualized attention and encouraging deep collaboration among teachers. According to the district’s most recent climate surveys (from the 2015-2016 school year), students at the Mason reported an enthusiasm for learning higher than the district average, and both students and families gave teachers at the Mason high marks for their performance. And the school’s Facebook page is abundantly adorned with pictures of joyful schoolwide celebrations, appreciations, and explorations.
Schools are communities, not widgets. This conviction led me to argue last year that one of the most salient reasons to vote “no” on the ballot initiative to lift the charter cap was the near-certainty of massive school closures. Observing the real and lasting wounds that school closures inflict on communities, I wrote that “unless or until we figure out how to close schools with kindness, we should stop opening new ones.” I still believe that. And my tacit approval of a proposal to close a school I did not know was unreasonably unkind and I am reluctant now to have it seen as a consensus.
One could argue, I suppose, that the process was merely an exercise meant to solicit creative ideas not a mandate to issue ultimatums. After all, none of these worksheets were binding. Maybe, typical of white men, I’m assigning myself more power than I deserve. But even if that’s true, I still think it is important that BPS officials poring over the 69 data worksheets collected during these meetings proceed with caution. I want them to interpret the recommendations with an eye toward what they were: quick superficial judgments made by well-intentioned highly-motivated people who care about “schools” but who are nevertheless underinformed (and maybe completely uninformed) about the schools in question. Before making final decisions about school facilities, they need not only talk broadly across communities but deeply within communities.
One place where BPS officials could look to for inspiration is Baltimore, where a community coalition that included (but was not led by) the district spearheaded a campaign for school facilities in 2012-2013. In addition to a series “community conversations” like the ones just concluded in Boston, district officials and community leaders also brought their plan to modernize school buildings to every school community. Over six weeks at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, leaders attended more than 160 school level meetings to listen to stakeholders and build support. A leader of one community organization, whose partner schools were not deemed priorities for renovation, seemed almost mystified by her own buy-in: “We as an organization got nothing for the first five years. Yet why are we still at the table? …Because we were so involved, the stakeholders in this whole thing, we bought into the process, we agreed to the process.
I want improved school buildings for my children (and for all children). But I also want to know that the process is one built not on the mere appearance of consensus – in which five strangers “agree” on abstract recommendations – but rather on the deep institutional knowledge embedded in school communities. Such a process would ask each school’s staunchest defenders to speak from their hearts and their heads. Such a process would ask all of us to see the goodness in every school, to treat other children as our own, and as a result to be a steadfast and passionate voice for whomever is not at the table. It’s what I will aspire to be.
Source: https://sites.google.com/site/masonpilot/history (accessed June 26, 2017)