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BU in Chelsea: A Private College Takes On Public Education

Part two: A model of urban reform

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Chelsea assistant superintendent Mary Bourque is a doctoral candidate at SED, studying one of the district’s intractable problems: its highly mobile student population. Photo by Kathleen Dooher

By the 1980s, the Chelsea, Mass., public school system was in crisis. Nearly half of all high school students failed to graduate in four years, and the buildings were underfunded, ill-equipped, and crumbling.

In 1988, at the request of beleaguered Chelsea officials, Boston University agreed to an unprecedented — and as yet unduplicated — initiative: to manage the failing schools for 10 years. The management plan, known officially as the Boston University/Chelsea Partnership, called for sweeping changes in curricula, teacher training, school policies, and facilities. The goal was to make Chelsea schools “a model for excellence in urban education.”

The partnership weathered early trouble, and major reforms took hold — the partnership secured computers for the schools and pay raises for teachers and created scholarships for teachers to take professional development courses at BU. School of Education faculty began helping to rewrite and standardize curricula at all grade levels. The 10-year agreement was extended to 20 years. Now, with the partnership set to expire this June, the question remains: did it achieve its goal?

Reviving a school system

By the 1990s, Chelsea was working to stabilize the school district, which had had four superintendents since the start of the partnership, slowing reform’s momentum. In 1995, the management team appointed its chairman as superintendent: Douglas Sears, who later became dean of SED and is now an associate provost at the University.

Sears says his five years as superintendent was all about the “unglamorous but critical work” of reviving a school system — improving special education, refining curriculum, and streamlining day-to-day operations, personnel, and record-keeping policies.

“We had to learn more about what was happening on the ground,” says Sears, who often pedaled around Chelsea on his bike to check on the schools.

His tenure came on the heels of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, which upended school funding and accountability. The curriculum overhaul, teacher training, and standardized student assessments that BU had been pushing in Chelsea were now mandated statewide. Chelsea native Margo DiBiasio, assistant principal at the Early Learning Center, which was later named in honor of BU President Emeritus John Silber (Hon.’95), says the mandates dramatically altered the dynamic between the University and the district.

“There was no accountability and no high-stakes testing back in 1989,” DiBiasio says. “So it did feel very top-down then, like BU was telling us we have to do this. But after education reform, it felt a lot different. Now, BU was coming in and saying, listen, we want to help you achieve these things.”

But the biggest change was $116 million in mostly state-funded school construction. When seven new schools opened in 1996 and 1997, it “gave people a sense of hope, a real sense that something was happening,” says Danielle Cruz, who graduated from Chelsea High School in 1999 and is now a graduate student in film at Boston University’s College of Communication. The district grew from 3,400 students in 1989 to more than 5,500 students by the late 1990s as more families gained confidence in the city’s schools. As the original 10-year contract drew to a close, city leaders lobbied BU to extend the partnership for 5 more years, and another 5 after that.

A model of urban school reform?

Strollers are parked beside the front entrance of the four-story John Silber Early Learning Center, and inside, children’s voices echo in hallways decorated with watercolor pumpkins and construction-paper snowmen. The center houses 40 prekindergarten and kindergarten classes, and its administrators are on guard against parents from other towns faking a Chelsea address to get their kids on the waiting list.

A plaque by the front door pays tribute to the center’s namesake, a sentiment echoed by DiBiasio and the center’s principal, Jacqueline Bevere-Maloney, another Chelsea native and longtime educator.

“He had this vision of getting us all into one building,” says DiBiasio, “supporting each other, working together as a team to improve our programs, having common professional development tailored to best meet the needs of this age group.”

Well before the center opened in 1997, Silber had pushed for the consolidation of Chelsea’s early childhood programs, then spread throughout the district, and at a time when most communities offered only half-day programs, had insisted that some of them run all day. The investment in early education was a radical idea in a time of fiscal drought, but it has proven to be one of the partnership’s most significant legacies.

“This city has an absolutely exemplary program of early education,” says Chelsea’s current school superintendent, Thomas Kingston, as he considers the question of whether the partnership has achieved its goal of creating a model for excellence in urban education.

Kingston also points to the new school buildings and to strong ties between the school district and the community in areas such as literacy interventions, tutoring, and services for students at risk of dropping out. “I’d also say,” he continues, “that we are at a far different level of achievement than we were even 10 years ago. Of course, we still have our challenges as an urban district.”

Indeed, while students have made gains on state and national tests, Chelsea confronts the same achievement gaps faced by many other urban districts. For instance, progress on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test, required of all public school students since 1998, has been mixed. While the percentage of Chelsea students who score “proficient” or “advanced” on MCAS has increased substantially, it often remains significantly below state averages.

“Chelsea has some achievements to celebrate,” says Paul Reville, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education and the commonwealth’s newly appointed secretary of education. “But it seems clear that simply having a private university engaged with a district, however bold and well-intentioned that university is, can’t totally offset the challenges posed by poverty in a community.”

The majority of Chelsea students come from low-income families, and for about 80 percent, English is a second language. And perhaps the most intractable challenge is the city’s highly mobile population. According to Mary Bourque, a Chelsea native and the district’s assistant superintendent, about 30 percent of the city’s students enter or leave the district in an average year. All this coming and going, says Bourque, who has been studying student transience for her doctoral dissertation at SED, dilutes the effects of a Chelsea education on the district’s test scores. Every student must take the MCAS, she points out, even if the family moved to Chelsea from Guatemala or Vietnam in the middle of the school year. Given that kind of influx, she says, “we are exceeding our demography.”

Bourque adds that other districts have emulated Chelsea’s curricular improvements in areas such as science and English as a second language. “We’re out in the forefront, where people are paying attention to what we’re doing,” she says. “We’re viewed as the Little Engine That Could.”

Chelsea native Joseph Mullaney, who has been at Chelsea High for the past 11 years and is now interim principal, praises the district’s arts curriculum. “Some of our kids are very talented,” he says. “When we speak about what BU has done well, one of the things is retaining and expanding visual and performing arts. They really made that a focus. Where a lot of other systems are eliminating the arts, we’ve really tried to hang onto them, and I think it’s paid dividends.”

And Corey Viafore, a Chelsea High special needs teacher, says that although teacher salaries are still relatively low in the district, the partnership has ensured that both teachers and classrooms are well equipped.

“I know a lot of teachers in other districts who have to pay out of pocket for basic supplies, and I haven’t had to do that,” she says. “And we also have great technological resources for our kids.”

In the hallway outside Kingston’s office hangs a photograph of the newly elected school committee, inaugurated in January 2008. The committee is preparing to assume independent authority in June, although a loose relationship with BU will remain, including some scholarships, the dental clinic, tutors and student teachers from SED, and BU’s curriculum-driven enrichment programs.

The photograph includes some older members, among them Morrie Seigal, who began a 35-year teaching career in Chelsea in 1947, and some younger ones, such as 19-year-old Melinda Alvarado-Vega, serving her first term.

Looking forward to June, Alvarado-Vega is both nervous and confident. “There’s a lot of pressure,” she says. “Everybody has their eyes on Chelsea, and I think they’re expecting us to fail. But we won’t. Chelsea is going through a major transition, and I think the school system is the beginning.”

Click here to read part one of “BU in Chelsea: A Private College Takes On Public Education.”

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu. Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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