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Boston University and the Chelsea School System: Exploring a New Avenue of Educational Reform?

A Page Covering Local and Town-Gown Issues

By Yin Y. Nawaday

It's been two years now since Boston University made the unprecedented move of taking control of an entire public school system.

Since then, life has not been easy for either the university or the tiny city of Chelsea just north of Boston.

The financially disabled and educationally starved city is the first in the country to boast the complete guidance of a private university.

Since May, 1989, B.U. has assumed the role of school committee for the city, taking on the right to hire and fire, make or break, and wheel and deal as it pleases.

B.U.'s bold actions suggest to universities across the country one possible solution to the nation's urban education woes: tapping into the ideas, faculty and financial resources of wealthy, private institutions.

Over the past two years, B.U. has involved faculty and students from each of its 15 schools and colleges.

B.U. administrators say they can point to many successes in their attempts at reform, but not all of the university's actions sit well with the tiny municipality's residents.

Used to Difficulty

The people of Chelsea have become accustomed to uncertainty over the years. Chelsea is one of the poorest municipalities in the state-over half of the students who enter the school system leave without a diploma. This summer, the city's fate was put into the hands of James P. Carlin, a state appointed receiver. The city's plight is one many will be watching closely.

Initially, B.U.'s proposal was welcomed by most of the 26,000 residents of Chelsea. Under the plan, the city would transfer much of its power to B.U for 10 years, during which time the university would attempt to rejuvenate the system with innovative ideas backed by its considerable financial resources.

For its part, Chelsea had to provide the operational funds for the schools and demonstrate to B.U a new dedication to education.

"Chelsea has a history of not providing money for education," says Ted Sharp, assistant dean at the B.U. School of Education. The problem with the Chelsea system, he says, was basically two-fold:

First was its lack of financial commitment to the schools. Chelsea contributed only one-fifth of its local tax revenues to the schools, falling well behind the statewide average of 54 percent.

Second was "the absolute dearth of political will" to support the need for education, with the exception of the mayor, Sharp says.

Two Early Problems

The two major stumbling blocks to approval of the plan were the Teachers Union and the Hispanic community. Both felt unceremoniously ignored and indignant at being shut out of the proceedings.

The Chelsea Teachers Union, represented by the the American Federation of Teachers, filed a lawsuit against B.U. and the city contesting the constitutionality of delegating public functions to a private institution.

But while the union proclaimed that the university was usurping voters' rights, Silber insisted that the university would do nothing more than a superintendent would.

The union also objected that B.U. operated outside public opinion with umpunity in the face of criticism. The university requested exemption from many public interest laws, such as open record and public meeting regulations which usually govern the actions of public school commitees.

While attempting to gain approval, B.U also antagonized the Hispanic community, which makes up more than half of the city's population. The Chelsea Commission on Hispanic Affairs challenged the proposal, arguing that it left half of the city's residents politically disenfranchised.

Silber's commitment to bilingual education was also deemed suspect by the community. More than 70 percent of the 3300 students in the system live in homes where English is not the first language.

But Sharp responds, "We're not willing to give the Hispanic community any more or less of a voice than any other group. It would be divisive and just as absurd as disenfranchising any part of the population."

The First Year

Much of the first year was spent building the foundational aspects of the program. This included installing new computers in the schools, negotiating new teacher contracts and running workshops for teachers. But complaints of an "unequal partnership" still lingered.

Sharp accepts such tendencies as normal and expected. "These problems are not unique to Chelsea. It comes with the turf," he says. Problems were exacerbated this year when much of the teaching staff was laid off before the start of summer.

Sharp says that the cuts have not injured the morale of the staff and is quick to say that it was Carlin's decision.

"People felt that the reasons for reducing the staff were beyond control. The very nature of the roles that management and union play mean that certain tensions will always exist," says Sharp.

Towards Family Schools

B.U.'s goal, says Sharp, is to create "family schools" which go beyond the traditional programs offered by most schools. These reforms include a dental screening clinic and health education program for classes from kindergarten through the eighth grade, an intergenerational literacy plan, and an alternative high school program to accomadate the one out of every four teenage girls in Chelsea who are pregnant.

"We're trying to build a model of education reform over the next 10 years," says Sharp. The reform includes hands-on activity such as a volunteer tutoring program from the B.U. student body and a visiting teachers program bringing B.U. faculty into city schools.

This past year's average standardized test scores show a marked improvement on almost all levels.

"The attitude seems to have changed a bit," says Colin Riley, a public relations representative from B.U.

"The criticism has reduced sharply," he says. This is due in part to the appointment of Diane Lam as the first Latino Superintendant in the state. In addition, B.U. points repeatedly to the work of Marta Rosa, who was the first Hispanic member of the community to be elected to the school commitee.

Persistent Criticism

But Donald Menzie, former president of the Chelsea Teacher's Union, paints a very different picture of B.U.'s influence on the public school system.

"The morale of the teachers is quite low," he says, because of the manner in which the teachers were dismissed at the beginning of the summer before being rehired before the school year.

"This was a very unusual way of doing business," he says.

Menzie says that, overall, B.U.'s management of the school system has had a destabilizing effect on the community. This is due in part to the manner in which the contract negotiations process was handled by B.U. Teachers are living in uncertainty, he says.

As for the various programs the university has begun, Menzie says he doesn't believe they are making a difference.

"I know that this is a minority opinion but I'm down here on the ground," he says. "I see an awful lot more confusion."

"They have quite a public relations department."

Menzie points to the drastic changes that the high school has undergone recently to illustrate his point. B.U. has changed the basic structure of the program three times in the past two years.

"The very fact that we have gone through this many changes in these few months is destabilizing," he says. The university has a poor track record with programs it has touted highly.

"I'd like to know how it works out when it's done right," says Menzie of B.U.'s experiment in educational reform. "But I find it distressing that every school which wants to reform must buck democracy."

Ironically, Chelsea is no longer a democratic city in every sense of the word. The city has been transformed into a receivership, under the helm of one state appointed manager-Carlin-until further notice.

"At least now it takes the decision making process out of a circus and into reasonable hands," says Sharp. He says that a receivership assures the university that all decisions concerning their budget will be free of politics.

For the moment, however, Riley says that the university is working with no budget right now. "Chelsea hasn't lived up to its end of the deal of level funding," he says.

Clearing A Path?

Sharp, however, maintains that B.U. never meant for the program to be the new road to educational reform.

"We've never marketed this relationship," Sharp says, "this is the biggest misconception."

The primary message, says Sharp, is what happens when a school system is endowed with new resources and ideas. The fact that it is a private university is irrelevent, he says.

"We need to encourage reforms to be different," he adds.

Catherine Snow, acting dean at the Harvard School of Education, agrees that the relationship between B.U. and Chelsea is more the exception than the rule.

She says that Harvard's collaborative relationship with the surrounding community school systems is more the norm.

Linda C. Wing, program coordinator for Harvard's Urban Superintendants Program, says, "Our program is built on the premise that close connections between the research and teaching staff here and the professional teachers outside is essential."

For example, Harvard sends second-year doctoral students into the surrounding communities to serve as interns and has fellowships specifically earmarked for people in the field.

As for B.U.'s solution to the urban school problem, Wing says, "I think it's a unique situation and the jury's still out."

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