Should a private university be given control over a public school system?
In a time when public school reform is the talk of Washington, the city of Chelsea, just north of Boston, decided in 1989 to try their own brand of educational reform when they teamed up with Boston University in the firstever partnership between a private university and a public school system.
Many critics have attacked the experiment, in which Boston University assumed control of Chelsea's public schools, calling it an unworkable precedent. Community leaders complain they have little input in the new changes, and two groups, the Chelsea Teachers Union and the Chelsea commission of Hispanic Affairs, have filed suit against the city, protesting that the new contract violates the state constitution.
But despite these and other setbacks, the contract between B.U. and Chelsea's five-school, 3,700-student school system continues to exit. Today, Chelsea is immersed in an elaborate process of educational reform, as a series of B.U.-initiated programs unite teachers and student from Chelsea and B.U. to work together to improve the Chelsea schools.
When Chelsea's school committee approached Kevin Carleton, B.U.'s director of media relations, to conduct a study of the school system and offer possible methods of improvement, "there were too many problems to fix," Carleton says.
"Anything that could go wrong had," Carleton says. "There was no curriculum beside the daily lesson plan. The schools were underfunded, there was no computerization, the teachers were underpaid...even the buildings were falling apart."
As B.U. began working to improve Chelsea's schools, the city's problems worsened. In 1991, financial and political problems left Chelsea bankrupt. The city was placed into receivership, the entire school system was dismantled, and a sixth of the teachers were permanently laid off.
"Chelsea was a plane going down," Carleton says. "The school committee bailed out and the city crashed and burned."
Despite Chelsea's problems, B.U. continued the long process of reform. Carleton says long-term plans involve improving attendance rates, improving graduation rates, and addressing faculty needs.
"Our broad goal is to create a model for educative reform," Carleton said. "We are working on the development of the curriculum from the low grades into high school."
Some aspects of the reforms have already succeeded. Chelsea has witnessed a dramatic decrease in dropout rates, from 18 percent in 1989 to 8 percent in 1992, and also an increasing attendance rate.
The 10-year program began in 1989 with a proposal by the university's school of management and education and later accepted by the mayor and school committee.
A temporary change in the Massachusetts state charter replaced the Chelsea school committee with a nine-member B.U. management team comprised of faculty members of the schools of education, liberal arts, and public health. The team meets monthly to make policy decisions.
Elsa Wasserman, headmaster of Chelsea High School, says she is seeing a trend of progress in the new partnership.
"I look at it as an experiment," Wasserman says. "Any relationship takes time to grow. But we were lucky the management team was here when the city's problems began."
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