Spelling It Out : Parents Tell Supt. Casselius They Need More Seats, Better Lottery System

A packed room of parents, mostly those with young children, greeted Supt. Brenda Casselius on Tuesday night, Oct. 15, at the Harvard-Kent School for the long-awaited meeting with Access for All.

The group of parents – mostly those seeking local seats for their kindergarten students – began to organize last summer just as Supt. Casselius was hired. In fact, she committed to meeting them on her first day in Boston, during the Charlestown Coffee Hour last summer.

John Shea said the conversation hasn’t changed in 15 years, since he and other parents helped to turn around the Warren Prescott.

Since then, the concerns for parents have only intensified, said Jannelle Bruno – one of the original organizers. She said there is a great deal of frustration with the lottery process to get a seat in one of the three Charlestown schools – including the Harvard-Kent, the Warren-Prescott and the Eliot schools. The annual lottery process assigns a number to the student, and the process is very cumbersome, she said. Beyond that, she said they discovered the numbers in the current lottery were much higher than maybe in the past – leading a lot of parents to make the decision to leave Charlestown, or take an assignment that involves getting bused to Eastie, Chinatown or beyond.

“We started talking to parents and started talking to older parents about their experiences and realized there was something not right and not adding up,” she said. “There are just not enough seats for the growing population of children in Charlestown. Our schools are so amazing, we want to build capacity for not just Charlestown students, but for all kids in Boston.”

Another concern came from parents who had children in multiple schools in multiple neighborhoods.

One of them was life-long resident Diane Ortega, who said she was raising her grandchildren. One of them was at the Harvard Kent, another was bused to East Boston and a third was at Kennedy Center pre-school. She said it has become impossible to manage the situation – particularly when the bus to East Boston is late or doesn’t show up at all.

“I can’t be in three places at once,” she said. “He gets off the bus at 4 p.m., she gets out here at 4 p.m., and I have to get the other one from the Kennedy Center. I don’t know why we have this bus company. It’s late. The GPS doesn’t work. Nothing works. I depend on that bus. If the bus doesn’t come, I have to depend on a neighbor or my sister because I can’t be two places at one time. I need help. I can’t do this.”

Ashlei and Acton Lezama said they have children at two different schools in Charlestown, and were surprised to learn that there wasn’t a sibling preference.

“When my 4-year-old started at the Harvard Kent, I thought my other child would be automatically in with sibling preference,” she said. “Now I find out it doesn’t work that way. They don’t have sibling priority. I have my youngest in the Kennedy Center program with BPS, but I don’t know what will happen next year if she doesn’t get into the Harvard Kent.”

Rory Fitzgerald said his wife and her father actually went to the Harvard Kent, but now as they try to get their child into the school, he has found it nearly impossible to figure out the system.

“I’ve spent more than two hours on the phone trying to figure out what number he is,” he said. “Then suddenly someone comes on and tells me he’s number 17. Why was he number 19 three months ago. We had a paperwork problem in June and he moved back several numbers. As a parent you wonder if you’re doing the right thing, or if you know the right people. I don’t want to put him on a bus to some place I don’t know and he certainly doesn’t know…I’d like it to at some level feel like it’s a fair process.”

Jessica Buckley said she has younger children, and she has been scouting out the schools for when they are ready to start. However, the stories she has heard are frightening to her.

“Our hope if for our family to stay in Charlestown, but the lack of understanding we hear from the schools, that’s a big question for us,” she said.

“We need to be sympathetic to the people in the communities and I don’t see that from BPS,” she continued.

John Shea was part of the group of parents some years ago that helped to reinvigorate the Warren Prescott School. He said the discussion was the same one that has been going on for the past 15 years regarding the schools in the Town. He said it was time for all that to end.

“I’ve gone through this every four years for the last 15 years,” he said. “This is the same problem. It used to be one school we turned around and everyone wanted, and now it’s three. There is a model for good schools…If you really want action, you have to talk to the politicians.”

Shannon Fitzgerald said she has three children at the Warren Prescott, and in her time dealing with the Boston Public Schools, there has been no action.

“We always seem to be assessing, but no one gets around to address these things,” she said. “No one ever makes any bold moves…You could have community schools that would be representative of the entire community here. You should assess things, but let’s make some bold moves.”

One of the bold moves that many are waiting to hear about is the transition of the Edwards Middle School from a stand-alone middle school serving primarily East Boston kids, to a new lower school that helps to assuage the capacity issues for those in the Town.

After hearing from so many during the short meeting – which was able to last no more than an hour – Casselius made no commitments, but gave a timeline for her decisions. Casselius has visited dozens of schools all over the city since late last summer, and said she has been to all of the Eastie and Charlestown schools now. This was probably her last meeting north of downtown, but it would also mark the beginning of her strategic plan.

“I’m hearing similar themes across the city,” she said. “I’m going to have those emerging themes collected and plan to share them with the School Committee for the first time on Oct. 16. Then when we meeting again I’m going to talk and cull a little more of that. So, over the next six to eight weeks I’m going to start bringing out the strategic direction for the district. I hope to have a retreat with the School Committee in mid-November and put some more meat on the bones of the plan. By Jan. 1, my goal is to have a final draft of the strategic plan for the direction of the district.”

She said that will launch a public comment period and more public meetings, with the hope that the plan is approved by the School Committee in February. That will lead to having the plan inform the budget, and perhaps address monetarily and programmatically the future of the Edwards and the other three Charlestown schools.

Casselius did detail a story from her own life, saying she took her kids out of one of the best schools in Minneapolis and enrolled them in her own neighborhood school, which was one of the worst.

“The school there was in the bottom five percent of the state…So, what did I do? I took my children out of the best school and I put them into what was considered the worst bottom 5 percent of schools,” she said. “I did that because I thought I could be part of the change, and I knew my kids would be fine anyway. So, I want to ask you, if we put all this investment in, we’re going to need the whole community to be in. This is all hands on deck. We have to be part of the change. (Neighborhood Schools are) not an easy sell when people don’t have what they perceive as being high quality schools already in their neighborhood. We have to build it and show them and rebuild their trust – just as we have to re-build the trust with you all.” She said one major concern citywide is the condition of the school facilities, and that would be discussed this week. She also discussed equity for schools citywide, and not just in Charlestown. As she has in community meetings in East Boston previously, she asked parents to give all the schools a chance – perhaps even those that are not in their neighborhood.

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