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Boston may close 6 schools

Three Hyde Park facilities targeted; Students, parents, staff voice concern

Elizabeth Gomes and her son Mason DePina, a student at Lee Academy Pilot School, one of the schools targeted for closure. Elizabeth Gomes and her son Mason DePina, a student at Lee Academy Pilot School, one of the schools targeted for closure. (Barry Chin/ Globe Staff)
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / October 7, 2010

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Boston Superintendent Carol R. Johnson recommended yesterday the closing of six schools plagued by low academic achievement, including three high schools in Hyde Park, her biggest pitch to shake up the school district since fall 2008.

The three high schools — the Community Academy of Science and Health, the Engineering School, and the Social Justice Academy — opened five years ago to much fanfare, replacing the troubled Hyde Park High. School officials had hoped that the smaller schools would create an intimate atmosphere that would spur success in the classroom, but the schools have struggled with low graduation rates and poor standardized test scores.

The other schools slated for closing under a proposal Johnson presented to the School Committee last night are the Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary School in Roxbury and the Roger Clap Elementary School and the East Zone Early Learning Center, both in Dorchester.

The plan also calls for converting the Patrick Gavin Middle School in South Boston into a district-run charter school and merging the struggling Lee Academy Pilot School with the better performing Joseph Lee Elementary School, both located in the same building on Talbot Avenue in Dorchester.

Many students, parents, and staff members from the affected schools turned out at last night’s meeting to express concern — and, in some cases, outrage — over the proposed closings and mergers. They had received letters earlier in the day outlining the plan.

“Everyone is upset and ready to organize to save our school,’’ Sasha De La Cruz, 17, a senior at the Social Justice Academy, said in an interview before the meeting.

Many parents, staff, and students from the Lee Academy Pilot School wore stickers advocating the preservation of their school.

The schools would close in June, pending committee approval. About 2,200 of the district’s 56,000 students would be affected by the changes, and students at the schools slated to close would be given top priority when the district assigns students for next fall, Johnson said. Most teachers and other staff members would have opportunities to apply for jobs at other schools.

“What we are trying to do is make sure all our schools are high quality and places that parents would want to choose to send their children to,’’ Johnson said in an interview yesterday before the meeting.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he supported Johnson’s plan.

“This proposal puts the best interest of the students and families of Boston at the forefront,’’ Menino, a lifelong Hyde Park resident, said in a statement.

The proposal is part of Johnson’s wider plan to remake the district’s 135 schools. That effort has sparked, among other initiatives, a new reading program for the elementary schools and the overhaul of 12 schools deemed underperforming by the state earlier this year.

The district is under intense pressure from the state and federal governments to bolster the quality of its schools and will be facing more competition from independently run charter schools in coming years. In response to a law enacted in January, the state will allow more such charter schools to open in the city, doubling the number of students enrolled at these publicly financed schools to roughly 10,000.

Some of the new charter schools could open next fall, pending state approval.

The impending loss of students is expected to exacerbate the district’s already tight finances. The district expects to lose about $55 million in state aid this year to cover charter school tuition costs, an amount that would roughly double once all the charter schools are in operation.

The district is plagued by excess capacity, with more than 4,000 empty seats spread among its schools, a situation that will worsen as more charter schools open. Each of those empty seats, district finance officials say, costs the city about $4,000.

Johnson’s proposal calls for some expansion, such as the addition of an elementary school program next fall at the Mario Umana Middle School Academy in East Boston and the opening of two in-district charter schools.

One in-district charter school proposal is for the Boston Green Academy, which would be geared toward academically struggling students in grades 6 through 12. The other is to convert the Gavin Middle School into a charter school run by Unlocking Potential, a nonprofit organization that is trying to help school districts turn around persistently low-achieving schools.

Under the proposed conversion, Unlocking Potential would ask staff members to reapply for their jobs, an action the district took earlier this year at seven underperforming schools. The school will be renamed UP Academy, and students previously enrolled at Gavin will have first priority in attending.

“We are very grateful to Mayor Menino and Superintendent Johnson for giving Unlocking Potential a chance at turning around a struggling school,’’ Scott Given, the company’s chief executive officer, said in an interview yesterday afternoon. “We won’t disappoint them or the students in the school or their parents.’’

Johnson’s last shake-up proposal, made two years ago, led the district to close six school buildings, merge several schools, and open new ones the following summer.

The proposal, which Johnson said would probably be modified based on public comments this month, received mixed reaction from the School Committee.

Although Esteniolla Maitre, the committee’s student representative, said she respected Johnson’s initiative to bolster the quality of the district, she added, “I can’t ignore one of the most devastating blows is closing down the Hyde Park complex.

“Why wasn’t Hyde Park given a chance to be a turnaround school?’’ asked Maitre, a Boston Arts Academy senior, referring to the overhaul efforts at the district’s 12 underperforming schools, which have worse academic records.

Johnson said she has not ruled out finding another educational use for the Hyde Park complex and will be appointing a committee to examine options.

At least two School Commitee members, Michael O’Neill and Mary Tamer, questioned whether Johnson was being aggressive enough in closing schools, given that only three or four school buildings would ultimately be vacated.

“I don’t think any of us want to see a process of closing schools on an annual basis,’’ Tamer said.

Claudio Martinez, another member, raised doubts about whether students from the schools proposed for closing would wind up at higher-quality schools, as Johnson stated in her proposal. For instance, Emerson students are being encouraged to apply to two underperforming schools.

The Rev. Gregory Groover, the committee’s chairman, said of the closings, “I know this is a hard pill to swallow.’’

About 30 students, parents, staff members, and other interested parties shared mostly objections to the plan during public comment. One of the most vocal groups came from Lee Academy, which recently received national accreditation for its preschool programs.

“To say my children excel at the school is an understatement,’’ said Odette Williamson, mother of two students. “Lee Academy is an exceptional school.’’

She said she turned down opportunities for her children to attend charter schools and suburban schools through the Metco program because she was impressed with the rigor of Lee Academy, even though it may not be reflected in its MCAS scores, the main barometer used in deciding the school closings.

“If I only looked at MCAS scores, I wouldn’t be in any Boston school,’’ said Williamson, eliciting applause from many in the crowd.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong location for the Lee Academy Pilot School and the Joseph Lee Elementary School. They are on Talbot Avenue in Dorchester.

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