Educators nationwide closely watch BU public school venture in Chelsea

CHELSEA, MASS.—A bold and unprecedented experiment in education reform is unfolding in the failing public schools of this impoverished community of clapboard houses linked to Boston by the looming, green Tobin Bridge over the Mystic River.

Boston University, whose Back Bay town houses and Gothic structures grace the scenic Charles River, has assumed broad operating powers over Chelsea’s five schools. Educators everywhere are watching to see what happens when academics leave their ivory tower for the trenches, applying their intellectual resources and theories directly to the seemingly insurmountable problems of an urban school system.

Their 10-year rescue plan, which BU President John Silber estimates will require as much as $60 million, for the first time associates healthy schools with healthy children and families. So along with an improved curriculum and better-trained teachers, the plan targets the nutritional, medical, drug-abuse, teen-pregnancy and dropout problems of Chelsea’s largely immigrant and minority school population.

“There isn’t an educator in the city opposed to any educational aspects of the project,” said Mary Raimo, headmaster of Chelsea High School and a 25-year veteran of the school system.

But the plan has sparked disputes since its embryonic stages some two years ago. Although the university is moving forward quickly, the courts have yet to rule on several lawsuits filed to block it.

The Chelsea project marks the first time public schools have been put under private control – a point that troubles state and national officials of the American Federation of Teachers as well as the 350-member Chelsea Teachers Union. The unions have challenged the constitutionality of the state-approved agreement that gives BU budgetary, hiring and firing authority within the constraints of union contracts.

Hispanic leaders, fearing the university’s involvement might mean an end to bilingual programs, also took the university to court. Parents who welcomed the university’s help countersued.

Mr. Silber, who hopes through the Chelsea project to create a national model for urban education, insists that there is a difference between “running” the schools and “managing” the schools, which is what he says the university is doing.

“The authority is still with the public,” he said. “We have the contract from a duly elected public school committee – our school board. They can fire us anytime they want to by a simple majority vote.”

The lead role belongs to the School of Education and its dean, Peter R. Greer, a friend and associate of former Education Secretary William J. Bennett.

Little more than a month into the new school year, changes are already evident:

* BU has hired a new superintendent and is paying her $75,000 salary while the school district continues to pay the $55,000 salary of the previous superintendent, who took a leave of absence when the university stepped in.

* BU professors and staff cross the river daily to work in Chelsea, making changes in the curriculum and training teachers.

* The school day has been extended in the elementary buildings to provide an extra 90 minutes of supervised activity.

“Everyone is looking for fireworks, and I can understand why,” said Mr. Greer, former superintendent of schools in Portland, Maine, and Mr. Bennett’s former deputy undersecretary. “What we’ve tried to do is set a good foundation to improve the school system.”

More changes will come later this school year and will include computer hardware and software and an expanded sports program for girls, he said.

“I know girls don’t have enough activities compared with boys,” he said. “I figure this might have something to do with dropouts and truancy and caring about school.”

The new superintendent is Diana Lam, an energetic, Peruvian-born administrator whose native language is Spanish but who also speaks English and French fluently. Her Hispanic heritage and experience in bilingual education in Boston have helped placate community Hispanics.

Ms. Lam said she agrees with Mr. Silber that immigrant students should learn English as quickly as possible. But she noted that Mr. Silber also believes the English-speaking population should learn a foreign language, and she wants to initiate a program that would teach English to Hispanic children and Spanish to English-speaking children.

In one of her first moves, Ms. Lam invited teachers to participate in an after-school “teachers’ board” that will meet five times a year to discuss how to improve education. She also established something she calls her Neptune Fund, through which teachers may submit ideas to improve education and get seed money to try them.

More than 100 ideas came in. One teacher proposed a hands-on science center in kindergarten and another suggested setting up classroom libraries.

“I looked at some of our school libraries and could see why they were interested in that,” Ms. Lam said.

“Chelsea’s problems are serious,” she said. “But I think it’s doable. The smallness of Chelsea is one thing that attracted me. If we can’t make this work in Chelsea, I don’t know what hope there is for a larger urban area.”

Teachers and administrators who have been in the Chelsea schools a long time are nervous about the future under BU management and defensive about the deteriorating schools. Many teachers and administrators recognized the need for changes, but there was no money to make them, said Ms. Raimo, the high school headmaster.

The school district budget is about $16 million. Mr. Silber said he would raise $2 million to start new programs this year. He is not quite half way there.

Contract negotiations are under way – the teachers’ contract expires at the end of February – but the BU team made points with some teachers when, to avert a strike, it dug into university coffers to give all employees a 5 percent across-the-board bonus. It cost the university about $400,000.

The university also offered to hire back any of the 54 teachers laid off in a budget crunch who wanted to return.

Edwin Weinstein, president of the Chelsea Teachers Union, said contract negotiations should prove “interesting.” The union, he said, has adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude.

But the union remains angry that BU did not seek its input when the School of Management prepared the 350-page report that led to the university’s takeover, said Mr. Weinstein. He has taught in Chelsea schools for 22 years and heads the high school’s business education department.

“I expect BU will be here for 10 years,” he said. “If we get an exceptional contract, dropping the lawsuit could be a point of discussion.”

“I hope the unions come around,” said Donna McNeil, president of the PTA Council. “I welcome changes in the schools.”

The BU professors are fired up about the project and have plunged into community activities, too.

Maria Estela Brisk, an education professor, goes to Chelsea every Tuesday to give a dozen teachers at Shurtleff Elementary School a for-credit course in “Literacy Development for Bilingual Learners.” She has also taken it upon herself to agitate for a playground for the school’s 850 pupils.

“This school has no playground – just concrete,” she said, striding onto the large, enclosed schoolyard bereft of anything except a tree and a huge puddle from the previous night’s downpour. “This is one of my pet peeves. I’ve adopted this school, and in my new role I find out what they need and start driving everybody crazy until they get it.”

Carole Greenes, co-chairman of the teaching and curriculum evaluation team, is busy writing proposals for federal and private foundation grants to support Chelsea. She also privately boosts a Mexican restaurant she discovered on one of her many walks around the community.

Dean Greer predicted that the already numerous trips across the bridge will grow. University students are eager to volunteer their services for tutoring and secretarial work, and Chelsea students have become turned on to BU.

Andrew Quigley, school committee member, publisher of the weekly Chelsea Record, former mayor and state representative, was instrumental in bringing BU in. His optimism extends far beyond the city limits and the immediate future.

“I believe John Silber will redirect public education in America for the century to come because of what’s happening in Chelsea.”


How Chelsea, Mass., is trying to handle its educational problems

Chelsea problems Boston University solutions

Deteriorating buildingsBuild new high school and new elementary school and renovate others

Isolation of Hispanic and Asian studentsMove bilingual students into the mainstream

Poor leadershipNew acting superintendent hired

Low test scoresImprove the curriculum, bring in computers and develop individual learning plan for each child

High teen pregnancy rate, drug abuseIntroduce moral and ethical education, drug education and enforcement policy

Adult illiteracyEstablish family learning centers

Poorly trained teaching staffRetrain teachers at Boston University

Segregated elementary schoolsEstablish magnet schools and offer limited choice plan

High dropout rateDevelop creative alternatives for meeting graduation requirements and assure graduates of a job

Low-paid teachersIncrease salaries and relate to levels of responsibility

Children not ready for schoolOffer prenatal care, medical and nutritional programs so children start school healthy and ready to learn

Not enough moneyFund raising, grant applications by Boston University

Single-parent familiesSet up mentor system, assigning men to children in homes without fathers and women to children in homes without mothers

Lack of child careOptional extension of school day and year; school for 3-year-olds

GRAPHIC: Photo, Peggy Harrington teaches reading in her fifth grade English as a second language class at Shurtleff Elementary School in Chelsea, Mass., By Stephen Crowley/The Washington Times; Chart, LOOKING FOR ANSWERS, By The Washington Times; Chart, A PROFILE OF CHELSEA, By The Washington Times

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Copyright 1989 The Washington Post

The Washington Post

October 21, 1989, Saturday, Final Edition


LENGTH: 824 words

HEADLINE: City Gets ‘F’ In Bilingual Education; Study Hits Services For Immigrant Pupils

BYLINE: Rene Sanchez, Washington Post Staff Writer


A new study of how the D.C. school system instructs its surging population of immigrant students concludes that the education they receive is at best an incomplete jumble of services that is often confusing and haphazardly applied.

In what is the largest investigation ever undertaken of bilingual education in the city, a team of consultants hired last spring by School Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins depicts a system that’s rife with widespread failure and neglect and urgently needs to be improved.

A draft of the consultants’ report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, is being examined by top school officials and the school board, which agreed to finance the $ 168,000 study after a series of disputes last fall with immigrant activists over how language-minority students should be taught.

School system sources said they suspect the study may renew longstanding feuds between activists in the Hispanic community, who contend the system treats its bilingual division as a second-class citizen, and school officials who say that the division is poorly managed and too independent.

If pursued, the consultants’ recommendations will create imposing financial and organizational tasks for Jenkins and the board. The wave of immigrants to the city this decade has substantially increased the demands that a number of Northwest schools place on the school system. And officials expect those strains to grow since more immigrant families are moving to neighborhoods east of Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant, where most immigrants to the District have settled in recent years.

Jenkins, who declined to evaluate the consultants’ preliminary work yesterday, has told board members that he expects the final report to be ready by Nov. 1. For months, Jenkins and the board have said the consultants’ findings will be used as the chief guide to improve services to immigrant students, the school system’s fastest-growing population.

The consultants, three prominent bilingual-education specialists, also could not be reached yesterday to elaborate on the conclusions of their draft report, which exceeds 1,000 pages and took five months to complete.

“This gives us a blueprint for what needs to happen,” said Beatriz Otero, a community activist who leads a task force Jenkins created to monitor bilingual education. “We applaud the system for agreeing to do this, and now we encourage them to take the work very seriously.”

Immigrant children, many from families fleeing war-torn Central American countries, are arriving by the hundreds to city schools each year, and now compose about 10 percent of the school system’s 88,000-student population. That percentage has doubled in five years. School officials say the rapid migration to the District is showing no sign of letting up soon.

School system policy is to test immigrant students on arrival and decide if they should be enrolled either in classes where their native language is primarily spoken or in classes where English is mainly used. Only one city school — Oyster Elementary in Northwest — offers full-fledged bilingual instruction to all of its students, and its classes are filled well beyond capacity.

The new study, though, indicates that immigrant students frequently aren’t given adequate language tests and instead seem to be shipped to schools that may — or may not — have enough teachers and programs to help them learn either in their native tongue or in English. The consultants found that the ratio of immigrant students to bilingual teachers is about 75 to 1.

The study also states that immigrant students often lack access to early childhood, special education, and honors or remedial programs. It concludes that the system makes little effort to assess immigrant students’ progress once they’re in the classroom. And it recommends that the system’s bilingual education division be reorganized and better staffed to reverse what it describes as years of poor performance by school officials.

“This does paint a gloomy picture,” said school board member Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1), who represents Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant. “I’m sure there are many shortcomings in bilingual services, but I think this report may be a bit too gloomy. We have a long way to go, but the system has made a number of strides to keep pace and expand with the dramatic increase in numbers.”

School officials struggle each fall to hire dozens more bilingual teachers and quickly train veteran staff members to address the special needs that immigrant students — many of whom have had no formal schooling — bring to the classroom.

“This report shows there’s a real need to make a massive investment into bilingual education — that there’s no other way the system can go,” said Marcelo Fernandez-Zayas, director of bilingual education in the city. “And for the first time, it seems the system is willing to step forward and tackle the problems.”

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