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Silber and Chelsea: A Lasting Legacy?

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Chelsea, Mass.

Across the Mystic River from Boston, clusters of small children emerge from a mammoth, gleaming new school into the autumn sunshine for recess.

Given the go-ahead from their watchful teachers, the kids abandon decorum to yell, run, and jump to their hearts' content, scrambling all over the colorful new slides and monkey bars on their gigantic playground.

To middle-class suburbia, the scene is nothing extraordinary. But this is Chelsea, Mass., a city with some of the worst poverty in the commonwealth. Only a decade ago, poor-performing students and their underpaid teachers here were packed into crumbling, century-old school buildings. Drugs, crime, and teen pregnancy were rampant. And citizens of this immigrant community had nearly lost hope.

But today, schools shine. Many give the credit for that to a 10-year agreement to manage the system begun in 1989 under then-Boston University President John R. Silber. It could be one of his greatest legacies. Since the university took over the 5,300-student system, the dropout rate is down, some test scores are up, teacher salaries are competitive, and applications for new teaching positions are rolling in, a September legislative report says.

"We've made some terrific progress," says Guy A. Santagate, a lifelong resident of Chelsea and the city manager since 1995.

In fall 1996, the district opened a new high school, two new middle schools, and four elementary schools--the first new schools in 90 years. The $115 million project was paid for by the state. This past summer, city officials decided Chelsea schools were doing well enough to extend the management agreement with the private university another five years, to the 2002-03 school year.

BU charges no fee for the arrangement and estimates that to date it has contributed some $8 million in in-kind services and contributions to the school system. In addition, a foundation established by the university has raised $11 million for Chelsea schools. Chelsea's operating budget for the 1996-97 school year was $27.5 million, which was supplemented by $3.1 million in foundation funds.

The agreement allows BU-appointed administrators to run the schools, but a two-thirds vote by the city's elected school committee can override the BU team on policy issues, and a simple majority can terminate the management arrangement at any time. The initiative also includes a demanding new curriculum and professionalized staff--BU pays for most teachers' professional development, and there are a few Ph.D.s teaching in the system--and before- and after-school and summer programs.

But not all the news from Chelsea is good.

Chelsea 3rd graders' 1997 scores on the Iowa reading test were the worst in the state, and the district's 1997 10th grade Iowa Test of Basic Skills results were nearly as disappointing.

Besides the disappointing test scores, some argue that the BU management team has made little effort to accommodate Hispanics and other minorities in Chelsea. According to fall 1996 figures from the state, Hispanic students accounted for 65 percent of the enrollment while Asian-American students made up another 9 percent, and black students 7.6 percent.

"They're working with a very diverse, primarily Latino population, mostly immigrant families struggling to make ends meet," says Marta T. Rosa, a City Council member, former school committee member, and longtime critic of BU. "Unfortunately, these people have been totally cut off from their children's schools. Boston University sets policy in an arrogant and dictatorial style."

Other officials here concede that in some circles, the management team is still regarded as an outside entity, but they said tensions--along with BU's management style--have eased.

"There's been some local resistance, especially early on, when BU came in and thought they had all the answers," says Santagate. "But we've made substantial progress. I think there's an openness now."

BU and Chelsea officials attribute the low test scores to the high degree of transience and poverty in Chelsea--33 percent of the student body moved in or out of the system and 85 percent received free or reduced-price lunches in the 1996-97 school year. And more than two-thirds of the district's students come from homes in which the primary language is Spanish, Vietnamese, Khmer, or another language besides English.

Observers inside and outside the school system say the low test scores are not an indication that the BU-Chelsea partnership is failing, but an illustration of how long it takes to turn a troubled urban system around. Some, however, fault Silber for not openly acknowledging that fact.

Chelsea "is a system with arguably many more resources than most districts in the state," but despite those resources, there haven't been marked, measurable improvements in student achievement, observes Mark O'Connell, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "But when Dr. Silber is confronted with this he retreats rather than using Chelsea as an example of the time and effort it takes to reform an urban system."

But Silber says that he and other BU officials "said when we went in [to the Chelsea schools] that we knew perfectly well you could not measure things in less than 10 years."

"Progress has been made, but the progress is not enough," he concedes. "It's slow but sure."


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