The announcement of a $1 billion school building plan in most cases would be met with great fanfare citywide, but the rollout of the BuildBPS Facilities Plan Phase 2 has been wrought with uncertainty and disappointment in many parts of the city, including Charlestown.
For the most part, the BuildBPS plan is focusing on the southern portion of Boston and in East Boston, while the downtown neighborhoods and Charlestown are getting very few of those resources due to a lower student demand. Most have understood that, but parents in the Town have proposed a few small changes and reconfigurations that they thought would be met with ease, but with the rollout of the plan last Thursday, easy became complicated.
Now, many parents are uncertain about the public school options at the elementary level, and more than a few are weighing options about moving – selling their homes while the market is still favorable to find a more certain schooling situation.
“My 30,000 foot thought on this plan is that we’re going to embark on a $1 billion, 10-year school building plan without a superintendent and without a chief of education – he quit last week,” she said. “When you’re starting such a plan you need experience and stable leadership at the top. We’re looking for that leadership at the same time we’re rolling out this plan.”
Most of the focus of the plan in Charlestown is reconfiguring the grades and re-purposing and phasing out the Edwards Middle School potentially. All of that, however, relies on new building projects in East Boston – where they are proposing a new elementary school and a new 7-12 high school. The Edwards now enrolls many Eastie students, and the plan is to relocate them back to their neighborhood with more seats there, and then use the Edwards for extra space.
“As previously stated, there are enough seats in Charlestown and Downtown to serve students living in that area,” read the report. “In addition, the Eliot School recently completed a construction project (its Salem Street campus) and has a second project underway (its Commercial Street campus). As a result, the neighborhood does not meet our current priorities for new builds or major renovations.
“With one 9-12 high school and two K-8s, students in the area have access to a predominantly single-transition pathway, K-8/9-12,” it continued. “There are no immediate plans to engage with schools in the community to transition to a K-6/7-12 model. BPS is open to proposals from both the Harvard-Kent Elementary School (K-5) and Warren-Prescott (K-8) regarding how to best serve their students and potentially utilize the Edwards building.”
But the lack of immediacy and even small investment is what is troubling many parents and Councilor Edwards.
“When BPS says there isn’t going to be any major investment in the infrastructure of the Charlestown schools, that’s frustrating because many take it as they are not invested in this neighborhood,” she said. “That’s a real concern.”
HARVARD KENT SIXTH-GRADE
At the Harvard Kent, a K-5, parents began advocating for adding a sixth grade to the school earlier this year. It’s a change supported by Principal Jason Gallagher and one that parents thought was a no-brainer.
It costs nothing and the school has space for the extra classrooms.
For the parents, it solves a major “sixth grade hole” in their lives. Because it goes only to fifth grade, parents often have to scramble to find a school for one year. Many students go on to the exam schools in seventh grade or to other 7-12 schools. That means that students have to transition to a new school for one year, and then transition again to a new school the next year.
However, BPS was not open to the idea in its BuildBPS plan, saying it would affect other parts of the city and cannot be done quickly.
“BPS has shared publicly that there are no plans to expand grade configurations at schools for the fall of 2019,” said BPS Spokesman Dan O’Brien. “Any grade changes to grade configurations at one school have impacts on other nearby schools and these decisions should not be done in isolation, which is why the BuildBPS process is taking a system-wide approach.”
But the parents at the Harvard Kent said this week that their kids – a mix of kids from various incomes and races – cannot wait for the schools to catch up.
“The district offered to engage us in the winter and spring of the New Year, but BPS’s student enrollment and budget decisions for fall 2019 are made by December 2018,” read a statement from the parent association. “Meeting in the New Year will be too late for our kids to have a sixth grade. Our 4th grade families will be forced to leave the school and district without the certainty of a sixth grade…We need this sixth grade to expand opportunity for 92 kids in a high-needs community to stay in BPS and excel in the district. Our kids cannot wait.”
O’Brien said there is a definite possibility of having discussions about the change this spring, with changes coming in the fall of 2020.
“There is a possibility of having thoughtful discussions in the spring 2019 with schools looking to expand their grade configurations for the fall of 2020,” he said. “In addition to expressed interest from the Charlestown schools, BPS is also seeking input from schools in other neighborhoods in the city.”
WARREN PRESCOTT SCALED BACK?
At the Warren Prescott, the school community was looking to add modular classrooms on its campus to accommodate the existing configuration they have of approximately three classrooms per grade, and including a middle school.
The small ask, they felt, was not unreasonable and would have prevented music teachers and other specialists from having to teach in the hallways and converted closets at the packed school.
But what they have heard is that they have not only been turned down for the modular classrooms, but also they are being scaled back. Parents said they have been told that the idea is to phase out the middle school, which is housed in the old Holden School. Also, they would be scaling back to having only two classrooms per grade.
It has produced quite a panic in that school community.
Marne Esselman, a parent at the school, said they have actively been seeking out elected officials and Mayor Martin Walsh to try to reverse the proposal. She said some parents are in panic mode, wondering if they should leave the neighborhood due to the uncertainty of the school situation. Many have said it is upending the turnaround that happened at the school more than a decade ago – taking it to one of the top schools in the district nowadays.
“We only would like the BPS to re-assess their plan because it affects the future generation of Charlestown,” she said.
With the budget process and enrollment projections for next year starting this week, Esselman said the time is now for parents to advocate.
O’Brien said nothing is finalized with regards to the budget and the configuration of the Warren Prescott. He said it, like the Harvard Kent, would be part of discussions to be had this spring, for potential implementation in the fall of 2020.
“With the budget process now beginning, individual schools have begun receiving budget projections for the 2019-20 year based on enrollment projections and other factors,” he said. “The Warren-Prescott has begun this process and decisions on enrollment and other programming factors for next year are not finalized.”
ACTIVE PARENTS AN INSPIRATION
Councilor Edwards said parents from both schools have inundated City leaders over the past week to try to protect the schools in Charlestown, which she said are truly neighborhood schools.
It has been inspiring, she said.
“I’m so happy and inspired and grateful to know that some of the most raucous, loud, and organized parents in Boston,” she said. “It gives me strength.”