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BU in Chelsea: A Private College Takes On Public Education

Part one: A city in crisis

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New schools give students a sense that reform is working. Photo by Kathleen Dooher

Danielle Cruz is like a lot of people from Chelsea, Mass., a city of about 35,000 people packed into two square miles across the Mystic River from Boston. She’s proud of her hometown’s history and diversity, but she’s aware of the stigma that poverty and low achievement have created.

Cruz is embarrassed to admit it, but during her undergraduate years at Brown University, she sometimes told new acquaintances that she was from Boston, rather than acknowledging her Chelsea roots.

“People make assumptions,” says Cruz, who graduated from Chelsea High School in 1999 and is now a graduate student in film at Boston University’s College of Communication.

By the time Cruz entered the public school system in the 1980s, Chelsea was in crisis. Fiscal mismanagement and corruption had brought local government to a standstill, and schools were underfunded, ill-equipped, and crumbling. Nearly half of all high school students failed to graduate in four years, and few aspired to college, let alone the Ivy League. The stereotypes that students like Cruz wanted to defy seemed more real every day.

But a bold decision in 1988 began to turn things around for this city. At the request of beleaguered Chelsea officials, Boston University agreed to manage the failing schools for 10 years, an unprecedented — and as yet unduplicated — move by a private university. 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: to make Chelsea schools “a model for excellence in urban education.”

The partnership weathered early trouble, including hostility from some residents who felt BU was too heavy-handed, rampant corruption among Chelsea officials, and a citywide fiscal meltdown. As the years passed, however, residents developed a trust in BU’s commitment, and the University stepped up its efforts to work collaboratively with school and community groups. Major reforms took hold, and the 10-year agreement was extended to 20 years.

Now, as the partnership is set to expire this June, the question of whether it created a model for educational excellence is a loaded one. The challenges of public education in a poor urban district with a transient population have proven harder to overcome than the reformers anticipated. Still, Chelsea schools are much more effective and hopeful places today than they were 20 years ago. And it’s fair to say that along the way, the students weren’t the only ones to learn something.

A city in crisis

The hillside above Chelsea’s central business district is strung with dense blocks of row houses and washed-out triple-deckers. The city’s busy main street is a commercial melting pot, with chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and Payless Shoes next to a Vietnamese restaurant and karaoke club, a Caribbean grocer, and stores offering Spanish-language movies and music. Overhead looms the green steel expanse of the Tobin Bridge, connecting Boston and its northern suburbs.

Immigrant families get their start in Chelsea. The Europeans who arrived in previous centuries have given way to waves of Hispanic and Asian newcomers. After World War II, as the city’s industrial economy began to crumble, crime and unemployment increased, and a massive fire in 1973 destroyed 18 city blocks, accelerating the downturn.

By the late 1980s, more than a fifth of residents lived below the poverty line. Starved of tax revenue, the city’s once-proud schools rapidly declined. Students scored far below their counterparts in other urban districts on standardized tests of basic reading and math skills. Only a quarter of the high school students took the SAT, and still fewer had plans to attend a four-year college.

When Chelsea officials came to BU seeking help, it was just the sort of challenge President John Silber (Hon.’95) was looking for. “We thought we could do it and we would do it,” he says.

Early achievements, vocal opposition

The Chelsea school committee approved a management contract in the summer of 1989, and the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill allowing BU to assume the duties of an elected school committee. Meanwhile, the city’s school committee was relegated to an advisory role, but it could overturn any BU decision, with the exception of personnel matters, with a two-thirds vote and could dissolve the partnership outright with a simple majority.

As the partnership began, retroactively dated to 1988, it confronted problems that went well beyond poor test scores. Several of the city’s turn-of-the-century school buildings were falling apart. Teachers lacked textbooks, supplies, and a standardized curriculum. Schools and administrators had no computers, and the superintendent managed the district’s multimillion-dollar budget using a ledger he kept by hand.

Some improvements began almost immediately. In the first three years, the partnership secured computers for the schools and pay raises for teachers and created scholarships so that they could take professional development courses at BU. And School of Education faculty began helping to rewrite and standardize curricula at all grade levels, a long-term reform that BU spokesman Kevin Carleton (COM’82) says was overdue.

“Before the partnership, one fourth grade teacher might teach kids about Mesopotamia and another might teach them about Greece,” he says, “and then those children would end up together in fifth grade, and their new teacher could never be sure what they knew.”

In addition, BU staff, students, and alumni volunteered as tutors in Chelsea. The University also funded programs aimed at reducing the dropout rate and teaching parents and children to read together, as well as adult education and GED courses. The School of Public Health helped open a clinic in Chelsea High School, and the School of Dental Medicine provided free screenings.

From the beginning, the arrangement had broad support in Chelsea, but also vocal opposition. The teachers union and a group of Hispanic residents each filed lawsuits over the partnership’s legality, which the courts ultimately decided in the partnership’s favor. Much of the initial discontent stemmed from a perception that the University had little patience for ideas and critiques from the community it had come to save. For instance, BU lobbied to exempt its management team from the state’s open records and meetings laws. And some community activists, such as Gladys Vega, executive director of the nonprofit Chelsea Collaborative, believed that BU and the all-white school committee hadn’t involved the Hispanic community as the management contract was being negotiated. “In the beginning there wasn’t any reaching out,” she says. “The reaching out was ‘do it my way.’”

The hard feelings didn’t stop there. Although an early BU study had praised “the diligence and commitment of the school staff,” many teachers felt that the management team held them in low esteem. “A lot of us felt blamed for the neglect of Chelsea schoolchildren, even though we did our solid best and were among the lowest paid teachers in the commonwealth,” recalls Michael Caulfield, a former head of the teachers union, who currently chairs the Chelsea School Committee.

Carleton, like many on the management team, believes that much of the local opposition was the media-magnified work of a few union leaders and activists. But he admits that the enormity of the challenges confronting the young partnership may have fueled BU’s impatience.

“It was a system that was greatly in need of guidance, hand-holding, and leadership,” says Carleton. “There was so much that needed to be done so quickly that we threw a lot of firepower into the mix.”

As it turned out, the real explosion, one that almost killed the partnership, was still to come.

The dark days

In the summer of 1991, facing a cash shortfall of more than 20 percent of its total budget, Chelsea declared bankruptcy. The state placed the city in receivership and removed the mayor. The school budget was slashed by 27 percent, a move that violated the partnership agreement, in which the city had promised to keep schools funded at or above 1989 levels.

BU could have walked away. Instead, the University pledged to continue the partnership. The decision was a turning point in its relationship with the city.

“Those were dark days, and they didn’t have to stay here,” says Guy Santagate (Hon.’00), a former Chelsea city manager, who was then on the city’s board of assessors. “But they stuck it out.”

In the end, 50 of about 300 teaching positions were eliminated, along with school sports and physical education. BU established A Different September Foundation, which to date has raised more than $12 million for Chelsea schools.

Meanwhile, the new scrutiny of Chelsea’s finances uncovered a web of illegal activity — bribes in exchange for city contracts and gambling operations — that led to the conviction of three former mayors and indictments of several other city officials. “As horrible as it all was,” Carleton says, “there was significant housecleaning and a new ethic of conducting business.” The city’s old power structure had essentially collapsed.

Click here to read part two 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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