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Third Version Reinvigorates Pact in Boston

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Business, education, and labor leaders in Boston have approved a new version of a 12-year-old education partnership that has been widely seen as a pioneering--but at times ineffective--model for community involvement in the schools.

The partnership, known as the Boston Compact, seeks to improve the quality of the city's public schools while guaranteeing job and higher-education opportunities for high school graduates.

The document, signed by civic leaders this month, is the third version of the Boston Compact since 1982.

When the first such partnership agreements were developed between the Boston public schools and leaders of business, higher education, and the building-trades unions, they were hailed as ushering in a new era of cooperation in the effort to improve urban education.

The original compact, which called for local businesses and colleges to offer to hire or enroll more Boston high school graduates if test scores rose and the dropout rate fell, has been a model for similar compacts around the nation.

'A New Day Here'

But many participants concluded that the original Boston Compact did not to live up to expectations. In 1988, when the agreements were up for renewal, business leaders delayed the development of a second compact for a time because of their concern over the progress of the schools.

"The older compacts had unrealistic goals, such as cutting the dropout rate by 50 percent,'' said Margaret A. McKenna, the president of Lesley College and the chairwoman of the Boston Higher Education Partnership. "When you decide you can't achieve them, you no longer try.''

The latest compact agreement has been under discussion for more than a year. Final approval was stalled by ongoing teacher-contract talks, which were settled late last year, and by the departure last year of Mayor Raymond Flynn to become the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.

Officials who developed the latest compact hailed it as a structure for community cooperation that, if put into practice, will result in real improvement of the city's schools.

"I think it is a new day here,'' Ms. McKenna said. "This is a very different compact and a very different group of people than before.''

"This is the first time that Boston has had all the parties' signatures on one compact,'' she added. "Prior to this, the business community said this is what we want the schools to do. Higher education and the unions did the same thing.''

Five Broad Goals

The new document was signed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino and leaders of the school system, the Boston Teachers Union, the Higher Education Partnership, the Boston Private Industry Council, and the Coordinating Committee, a business leaders' group. It lists five broad goals for the next five years:

  • Access to employment and higher education. The document calls for a greater commitment to school-to-work-transition programs and new efforts by business and higher education to offer jobs and college placements.
  • Commitment to innovation. The compact voices strong support for reforms included in the new teachers' contract, such as school-based management with new school-site councils. Businesses and colleges also agreed to support management training for school adminstrators, teachers, and parents in six pilot schools.
  • Curriculum, standards, and assessment changes. The Boston Higher Education Partnership will provide curriculum coordination between high schools and colleges. All parties agreed to develop better assessments.
  • Training and professional development. The signers agreed to provide teachers and administrators with training in school-based-management skills.
  • Support for parents and families. The compact will support preschool programs, family outreach by schools, and efforts to help parents get more involved in the schools.

June Deadline for Details

Edward Dooley, the executive director of the Boston Compact, said the participants will work together on fleshing out the "nitty-gritty details'' of the plan.

"I think the general goals are sort of like a mission statement for an organization that is redefining itself,'' he observed.

Mr. Dooley took issue, however, with those in Boston who have called the old agreements ineffective. He noted that the earlier pacts have created 28,000 summer jobs, placed 7,000 high school graduates in jobs, and helped generate $50 million in scholarships from the Higher Education Partnership.

"The idea of the compact is to oversee the realization of broad improvements in the Boston public schools, and that takes a great deal of time,'' he said. "Where we have targeted improvement, we have seen success.''

Mayor Menino has set a June 15 deadline for the development of a more detailed plan.

The goals, Mr. Menino said, "are merely words on paper unless they are backed by a strategic plan for action.''

No 'Silver Bullet'

Several officials said the new compact is significant for its emphasis on new sectors of participants, such as human-service providers and parent groups.

"The most important thing it does is recognize that it is going to take an entire community effort to improve public education,'' said Edward Doherty, the president of the B.T.U. "People can't stand outside the education community and point fingers and constantly accuse teachers'' of being the source of problems.

The new compact, he said, "is neither a silver bullet nor something which should be undervalued.''

John Cawthorne, a senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy at Boston College, said each version of the compact has achieved some degree of success. The frequent debate over the partnerships, he observed, "is a natural process rather than an indication of failure.''

What the plan is lacking, he said, is a sufficient organization or mechanism to keep re-evaluating the goals and the progress toward them. "I think the goals are right, but without putting in place the mechanism to carry them out, they are just that,'' he said.

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