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Chelsea Oversight Panel Laments Tensions Between Hispanics, B.U.

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Longstanding tensions between the Hispanic community in Chelsea, Mass., and the private university that took over responsibility for the city's schools in 1989 threaten the progress of the partnership, a report by a panel of educators says.

The Chelsea oversight panel, which was appointed by the state board of education at the request of then-Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in 1989, issued the report last month. The panel reports periodically on whether the schools are being run in a "publicly accountable'' manner under the 10-year agreement between Boston University and the Chelsea school system.

A primarily Hispanic parents' group in Chelsea is using the report to urge Robert V. Antonucci, the state commissioner of education, to appoint a mediator to work with the university and the Hispanic community groups.

Anthony Tiro, the chairman of Chelsea's elected school committee, which has the authority to end the partnership, said that while he thought some of the complaints were overstated, the situation will "tear the community apart'' if the tensions are not resolved soon.

About 60 percent of Chelsea's 4,228 public school students are Hispanic, and most students served by the bilingual-education program speak Spanish as a first language.

Douglas A. Sears, the chairman of the university's management team for the district, which sets policy and develops curriculum for the schools, said that the university would not participate in mediation because it "presumes an adversarial relationship and bad faith; there's no bad faith on our part.''

Mr. Sears said he was not convinced that the parent group and others interviewed for the panel's report were truly representative of the Hispanic community.

A spokesman for Mr. Antonucci said last week that the commissioner was "still considering'' mediation.

Problems of 'Perception'

Hailed nationally as an unprecedented partnership between a private university and a neighboring school system, the Chelsea initiative has faced opposition since its inception from various sectors of the local community.

The university moved into a city with big financial troubles; Chelsea was placed into receivership in 1991. A longtime home to immigrant groups, the city, just outside Boston, also has experienced class and racial tensions. (See Education Week, Sept. 25, 1991.)

The report's authors said its aim was not to verify the accuracy of community members' claims in areas of specific disagreement, such as the university's approach and administration of the bilingual-education program. The report aims instead, they said, to underscore that while the university might consider certain issues resolved, some members of the Hispanic community do not.

It focuses on the Hispanic community's perception that the university does not take seriously its input on how the schools should be run and that communication problems are rife between the administration and the community.

The panel commended the university's efforts to include community voices; university officials set up parent and community councils that have met regularly with the B.U.-appointed superintendent. But, the report says, the university "has not succeeded in surmounting the negative feelings that exist in Chelsea toward it.''

"From the first year, one of the major problems has been the B.U. management team's problem in talking with people of color, people who are poor, and people who don't speak English as a first language,'' said Irwin Blumer, the chairman of the oversight panel and the superintendent of schools in the Boston suburb of Newton. Mr. Blumer said that the university team often speaks to community members in public meetings "with a tone of arrogance.''

Superintendent John Gawrys Jr. acknowledged that perception and said he would continue to work with parents. "But if that group interprets our ability to listen by the degree to which we agree with their position,'' resolution may not be easy, he said.

Edmundo Rodriguez, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University's graduate school of education who is bilingual in Spanish, was brought on to the oversight panel in 1992 as a staff assistant. Mr. Rodriguez interviewed community members, students, and teachers and attended meetings to compile the report.

Socorro (Socky) Garcia, a mother of two Chelsea students and the president of the Bilingual Parents Advisory Council, which asked for mediation, said: "B.U. doesn't understand our children or what we as parents want; they're in the wrong city with the wrong people.''

"This is definitely a class issue,'' said Marta T. Rosa, a school committee member and the president of Chelsea's Commission on Hispanic Affairs. "When B.U. came in, they didn't take the time to learn about this community and its people: The paternalistic knight in shining armor does not work here.''

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