Boston Board Takes First Step Toward Total Restructuring

By William Snider — January 11, 1989 4 min read

The Boston Public Schools will undergo a total restructuring based on the concepts of parental choice and decentralized decisionmaking under a resolution adopted by the school committee late last month.

The committee declined, however, to adopt an implementation schedule for the changes until Laval S. Wilson, the district’s superintendent, has a chance to review the plan and make detailed recommendations.

Final action on the blueprint, which would spark a major reorganization of the district’s management structure and end 14 years of forced busing for elementary and junior-high students, is expected in February, according to the committee’s resolution.

Many of the leaders involved with the plan are pressing for some aspects to be implemented in time for some students and their parents to make school choices by September.

All students currently enrolled will be “grandfathered” to allow them to continue attending their present school until they complete its highest grade.

The school committee’s approval of the plan last month is considered a significant victory for Boston’s Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, who4made education reform one of his top goals for 1988.

The plan represents “something unusual--a joint effort by separate governmental bodies that are typically antagonistic,” said Thomas O’Reilly, the newly elected chairman of the Boston school committee, referring to the Mayor’s unusual role in the reform deliberations.

“We’ve never done it before,” he added, noting that the strained relationship between school and city leaders had resulted in budget cuts for the schools as recently as last year.

Although the plan was described as a “framework” and significant details remain to be worked out, the school committee expects Mr. Wilson’s recommendations to adhere “quite closely” to the current proposal, Mr. O’Reilly said.

Any changes should be “technical, rather than anything else,” he said.

Mr. Wilson was not available for comment last week.

Some school and community leaders criticized the school committee’s action on the plan as “hasty,” saying that more time for public involvement should have been allowed than the two months since an earlier draft of the proposal was unveiled.

Critics have also charged that it contains no guarantee that additional resources will be made available to bring about needed improvements in the most undesirable schools.

But the committee’s 10-to-1 vote in favor of the plan was seen by observers as a decisive indication that the district’s leadership embraces the novel restructuring ideas contained in the blueprint.

The reform plan was drawn up by two consultants hired by the Mayor--Michael Alves, former director of desegregation for the Massachusetts Department of Education, and Charles V. Willie, a professor of education at Harvard Universitty.

The two consultants say that their “controlled-choice” plan for Boston contains a stronger mechanism for forcing improvements in unpopular schools than have similar plans that they helped develop for cities such as Cambridge, Mass., Little Rock, Ark., and Seattle.

The plan contains a “fail-safe” mechanism that mandates technical assistance for schools that fail to recruit an adequate number of students, Mr. Alves said.

If a school continues to remain undersubscribed after two years, he said, district officials “may take whatever measures necessary” including removing the school’s principal, restructuring its educational mission, consolidating it with a more successful school, or closing it.

The proposal calls for the district to be divided into three zones, each headed by a zone superintendent with broad powers to supervise school-improvement efforts.

Parents will have a choice of at least 20 elementary schools and 6 middle schools located within their zone of residence. Mr. Alves projects that between 5 percent and 10 percent of students will not receive their choices and will be reassigned in order to ensure that the racial balance guidelines for each school are met.

The new plan represents the first time that the school committee has made major changes in the student-assignment process since U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ordered the district in 1974 to begin mandatory busing of students to achieve racial balance.

Judge Garrity will be asked to review the new plan, according to Thomas I. Atkins, a lawyer representing black plaintiffs in the district’s desegregation case.

Mr. Atkins declined to comment on the merits of the plan, saying that “it’s difficult to tell where it is going to come out by the time the superintendent and his staff finish their review.”

The state board of education must review the plan, but approval is considered likely.

The blueprint also calls for the establishment in each zone of a “school-improvement and planning council,” made up of parents, educators, business leaders, youth advocates, and other community representatives appointed by the school committee for two-year terms.

These councils would serve largely as monitoring and advisory bodies, but may also be granted specific decision-making and discretionary budget authority by the school committee or superintendent.

The blueprint also indicates a move towards school-based management, which would enable a team of educators at each school to make the improvements necessary to make it attractive to parents.

The school committee and the Boston Teachers Union have begun discussing school-based-management options in contract negotiations, but have not reached agreement on any specific proposals, representatives of both sides said.

Under Mr. Wilson’s tenure as superintendent, the district has taken major steps to ensure uniformity of curriculum and programs in all of the district’s schools.

Thus, any site-based decisionmaking is likely to be limited, at least in the near future, to “add-ons,” Mr. O’Reilly said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as Boston Board Takes First Step Toward Total Restructuring