Chelsea At The Crossroads

By David Hill — September 01, 1990 19 min read

An “arranged marriage.” That’s what Diana Lam, the energetic superintendent of the Chelsea (Mass.) Public Schools, calls her district’s unprecedented partnership with Boston University. Forged in the spring of 1989, after the local school committee concluded that its schools were in serious trouble and in desperate need of outside help, the 10-year pact has put the small, working-class city of Chelsea, just north of Boston across the Mystic River, in the spotlight.

This month, students and teachers in Chelsea begin their second year under the arrangement, which gives a Boston University management team, composed mostly of education school faculty members, complete authority over the school system; the school committee retained only the right to cancel the contract by a majority vote, a sort of pre-nuptial agreement. As might be expected of an arranged marriage, there hasn’t been much of a honeymoon.

“Each side is still getting to know one another,” says the 41-year-old Lam, a former administrator in Boston’s public school system whose background in bilingual education helped her get the Chelsea job. “Each side is still learning to trust one another. Sometimes one side is more patient than the other. And oftentimes, the in-laws and the relatives meddle. My hope is that at some point it will become a love marriage, one that is based on mutual respect.”

Both sides have their work cut out for them. Last May in Chelsea, at one of the BU Management Team’s monthly pub-lic meetings, many of the problems that trouble this relationship—power struggles, political maneuvering, lack of communication, and mistrust—were apparent.

When Peter Greer, dean of BU’s school of education and chairman of the team, asked for public comment on a rou-tine special-education report, he got more than he bargained for: A special-education teacher, flanked by supportive parents, got up to complain about how she had wrongly been denied tenure. Gently but firmly, Greer cut the teacher off, telling her that she—and the parents—could only address items on the agenda.

School committee member Marta Rosa, a leader of Chelsea’s large Hispanic community and a vocal critic of the Boston University arrangement, was furious. “I think it’s wrong that you’re not letting these parents speak right now,” she told Greer. “When we ask parents to get involved, we should allow them to do that.”

Greer, his voice raised, said, “I will not run a meeting that turns into rancor!”

School committee chairman Anthony Tiro, a tell-it-like-it-is Chelsea native who, for obvious reasons, goes by the nick-name of “Chubby,” suggested that Greer bend the rules to allow the teacher and parents to speak. Greer remained steadfast. Besides, he told Tiro, “This is a personnel matter. A grievance has been filed. I simply cannot allow this to be discussed at this point.” Case closed.

Minutes later, an item on the agenda called for the team to reconsider Lam’s decision to deny tenure to another teacher. (Requesting the management team to reconsider a policy matter is one of the few powers the school com-mittee has.) After some discussion, team member Michael Rosen, BU’s associate general counsel, said tenure deci-sions rest entirely in the superintendent’s hands, not in the management team’s, and a move to overrule Lam’s deci-sion would be “null and void.”

That didn’t stop Michael Heichman, vice president of the Chelsea Teachers’ Union, from delivering an impassioned speech in defense of the teacher. “You said that you would have a compassionate policy,” Heichman told the man-agement team, “but there is a feeling that there has been a betrayal of that and a rush to judgment. An injustice has been done, not to one person, not to two people, but to every single teacher and parent in the school system.” Many of the 100 or so in the audience applauded Heichman as he sat down.

The management team let Lam’s decision stand.

To an outside observer, the three-hour meeting, held in the aldermanic chamber of Chelsea’s 80-year-old city hall, had a distinct “us vs. them” quality. It didn’t help that team member Rosen kept scribbling notes and then passing them to Greer and Ted Sharp, assistant dean of BU’s school of education.

The following day, safe in his office overlooking Commonwealth Avenue, Greer, a polished New Hampshirite, talks about the contentious meeting. His office walls are lined with photographs of George Bush, Ronald Reagan, John Sununu, William Bennett, and others. Greer, 50, is no stranger to politics: He spent two years in the U.S. Education De-partment as Bennett’s deputy undersecretary for intergovernmental and interagency affairs. Before that, he was su-perintendent of the Portland (Me.) Public Schools.

“That was a tense one last night,” he says. “I had asked Diana Lam to visit the classrooms of every teacher about to go on tenure, because that’s such a major step. And she did her job. But the Chelsea School Committee is not always known for backing the superintendent and the principals if they do a tough evaluation. That was our way of saying, `We back our superintendent.’ She’s a first-rate evaluator. We’re not going to undercut her.”

He adds: “Let’s just say that no one can accuse Boston University of taking on an easy situation. We’re still outsiders and will be for a long time.”

Chelsea, population 26,000, has always been a city of immigrants. A sampling of the names of students at Prattville El-ementary School tells the story: Anthony Giso, Richard Malone, Alyssa McBride, Catherine Rivera, Chi Tang, Karen Tohmc. Fifty-four percent of Chelsea’s 3,500 public school students are Hispanic, 12 percent are Southeast Asian, 5 percent are black, and the rest are white. The task of educating such a melting pot of students, particularly in a city with an ever-shrinking tax base, has been enormous.

There’s no question that the Chelsea Public Schools have problems. Test scores have consistently been among the lowest in the state. More than half of the district’s high school freshmen do not graduate, the highest dropout rate in the state. The city’s teen-pregnancy rate also is the state’s highest, and its average per-capita income of $10,000 is nearly 40 percent below the state’s. The last time a new school was built in Chelsea was in 1923; two of them were built at the time of the Spanish-American War. The city allocates only 20 percent of its tax revenues to education (the statewide average is 54 percent).

Andrew Quigley, a former mayor of Chelsea and, until his recent death of cancer, a long-time school committee mem-ber, knew something had to be done. In 1986, Quigley approached John Silber, BU’s outspoken president, proposing that the university take over the city’s ailing school system. Quigley knew that Silber had once offered to take control of Boston’s public schools; the offer had been rebuffed. Surely, Silber would love another chance to prove that a pri-vate university could run a public school system better than a city government. “This kind of change could serve as a model for many other schools in years to come,” Silber said at the time. “This could have a great impact on the next century of education.” (Silber is now on leave from the university while he makes a bid to become the next governor of Massachusetts.)

Long before an agreement was reached, Boston University conducted a 10-month study of the Chelsea schools. Re-leased in 1988, the report painted a grim picture of a school system—and a city—on the verge of collapse. “Chelsea is a city in crisis,” the report stated. “Its streets are a battleground in the war on drugs and its residents are frightened into isolation by the crime and violence outside their doors. Standing amidst this social and economic milieu, it is not sur-prising that Chelsea’s schools are also in crisis.” The report went on to criticize the city for letting its schools sink into the ground: “Poor leadership at both the city and school levels is a major factor; there is no one who has challenged the prevailing assumption that the schools are powerless to reverse this decline.”

For many in Chelsea, the report was a bitter pill to swallow. “From the very beginning, you only read bad things about Chelsea,” complains Ed Weinstein, head of the Chelsea Teachers’ Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Carol Murphy, principal of Shurtleff Elementary School, had other concerns. “I was a little bit skeptical about the credibility of the evaluation, considering that it’s almost like asking a plumber to come in and assess whether or not you need a new heating system when they want to sell you that heating system,” she says.

The Chelsea Teachers’ Union, in fact, was dead set against the planned partnership. Donald Menzies, Weinstein’s pre-decessor, went so far as to declare “war” on the proposal, claiming that it would trample on teachers’ rights and set a dangerous precedent by placing an unaccountable private institution in charge of a public school system. In November 1988, the local union and the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers jointly filed suit in state court challenging Boston University’s plan. (The suit is pending.)

Despite the opposition, on March 29, 1989, the Chelsea School Committee voted to enter into a contract with Boston University. Three months later, Gov. Michael Dukakis signed a bill making the agreement legal and binding.

Chelsea’s problems were now Boston University’s problems. But even before the governor’s ink had a chance to dry, 51 Chelsea Hispanics, wary of giving up their schools to a university whose president was known to be critical of bilin-gual education, filed suit against the university, claiming that their community had been shut out of the negotiating process. The Hispanics took the same tack as the teachers’ union, questioning the legality of a public school system’s being controlled by a private institution. “The question is whether or not the education of the children of Chelsea will remain in the hands of the citizens of Chelsea, and not offered to the highest bidder,” says the Hispanic group’s law-yer, Alan Jay Rom, director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the Boston Bar Association. (A ruling on the suit is expected this fall.)

The lawsuits didn’t stop Boston University from going ahead with its plan to get Chelsea’s schools back on track. The university proposed sweeping changes, including:

  • An early childhood program that would focus on language and literacy skills for children ages 3 to 5.
  • A “Family Learning Center” that would offer programs for parents on prenatal care, health and nutrition, child care, and ways to support their children’s school experience.
  • Individual learning plans for every student in the school system.
  • A mentor program that would pair every student with an older “buddy” in the community.
  • Alternative academic programs designed specifically for at-risk students.
  • A “dramatic increase” in teacher compensation, with some lead teachers making more than most administrators.
  • An extensive in-service training program that would take advantage of Boston University faculty members.

The university also promised:

  • To raise at least $2.5 million—largely through corporate foundation sources—during the first year of the part-nership.
  • To increase test scores.
  • To increase the number of high school graduates by 10 percent by the end of the fifth year.

One of the first actions the university took after signing the agreement was to give all Chelsea school employees a 5 percent, across-the-board bonus, at a total cost of about $400,000. The university also offered to rehire any of the 54 teachers—including Shurtleff science teacher Corky O’Rourke, Chelsea’s 1988-89 teacher of the year—who had just been laid off because of a budget crunch.

Boston University also hired, at $75,000 a year, a new superintendent: Diana Lam, a Peruvian-born, Spanish-, English-, and French-speaking educator with an impressive resume. A former teacher, Lam previously was an area superinten-dent for the Boston Public Schools, and before that she served as the coordinator of bilingual and multicultural re-sources for Boston’s school system. Lam’s background made her a natural choice for the Chelsea job.

“I think the management team was looking for somebody who had ideas,” says Lam, sitting behind the desk in her standard-issue, carpetless office. “I think I have ideas. They wanted somebody who takes risks; I think I have taken risks throughout my career. And they wanted somebody who can act quickly; I think I can act quickly.”

Lam has acted quickly. On her first day on the job, she created a special $5,000 fund reserved for small grants to teachers. She received 100 applications, and the money went fast.

Lam also added computers to the central office, started a teacher-written newsletter, and ordered that a newsletter for parents be published in four languages: Spanish, English, Khmer, and Vietnamese.

When she found out, after the first semester last year, that 490 of the high school’s 1,050 students had failed two or more courses, she created the High Expectations Learning Program (HELP) to give them a chance to earn credits after school and during vacations. By the third quarter, the number of students with two or more F’s had dropped to 246. “Now, has that been because of the short-term intervention program?” she asks. “Possibly. But I would not say that it’s just that. What’s more important than any intervention is that we were not willing to accept that as business as usual.”

Lam also decided, at mid-year, to cluster Chelsea High’s 8th grade students in a separate wing of the school, rather than keep them mixed together with the older students. “These are not revolutionary ideas,” she says. “But they had never been tried before in Chelsea.”

One year into the partnership, some Chelsea leaders complain about the way Boston University is conducting its busi-ness. Anthony Tiro and Marta Rosa contend that policy decisions are being made without the school committee’s in-put. Rosa, who was elected to the school committee after the Boston University takeover (becoming Chelsea’s first Hispanic elected official), finds herself in the position of trying to represent a constituency in a job that doesn’t give her much opportunity to do so.

Lam responds: “I’m still not sure that people understand their roles. For example, I believe that the Chelsea School Committee still wants to be the chief policymakers. But in this particular case, that’s what they gave up. It’s hard for them to accept, and that sometimes creates some tension.”

Greer agrees: “They signed the contract. On the one hand, they want it to work. They really do care about the kids. But on the other hand, they lost power, and they’ve lost prestige, and it’s really hit them now.” Greer recently elabo-rated on this point in The Boston Globe: “The research doesn’t say if everyone’s in on the decisionmaking pro-cess the schools are going to be any better. That’s not to say I’m against participation, but I don’t want it to be a power play. That’s not going to happen in Chelsea.”

The university also has been criticized for promising more than it could deliver. “The citizens of Chelsea were sold a bill of goods by Andrew Quigley,” says Tiro. “They thought Santa Claus was coming, but he hasn’t arrived yet.”

Weinstein, president of the teachers’ union and a 1961 graduate of Boston University, is especially critical of the way BU has sought publicity for the Chelsea project. “I get the impression, as many others do, that they want to make in-stant gains and get instant public relations, instant publicity, so they can go out and raise more money,” says Wein-stein, a tough-talking Chelsea High School business administration teacher.

Weinstein cites two examples: the clustering of 8th grade students at Chelsea High and the HELP program. He calls the clustering “a big publicity thing” and Lam’s touting of the HELP program “false advertising.”

“Are we doing these things to make us look good,” he asks, “or are we doing them to help the students?”

“I’m surprised he said that,” Greer responds, “because he knows as well as I do that we have to stay in the public eye just for funding aspects.” (He also praises Lam for implementing the HELP program. “She took action, and she did it quickly,” he says. “Did it work 100 percent like she wanted it to? No. But it helped a lot of kids.”)

Still, it’s not surprising that Weinstein and others are defensive about a group of outsiders—academics!—coming in to save their schools. Like Shurtleff Principal Carol Murphy, Weinstein was particularly stung by BU’s report on Chelsea. “My God!” he complains. “They made the people in this community sound like human rabbits, as far as their reproduc-tive rates were concerned. It seemed as though they wanted to come in here in a disruptive fashion and just alienate people.”

Greer says he understands the fine line his university must walk. “Obviously, the unbearable condition of education in Chelsea is precisely what inspired our project and enabled it to win legislative support, national attention, and outside funding,” he says. “At the same time, national focus on Chelsea’s problems hurt; every word, every gesture, every non-appearance at a Chelsea function became suspect, a possible insult to Chelsea.”

Greer also admits that funding for the partnership hasn’t gone as well as expected. “We’ve now raised about $1.3 mil-lion, something like that,” he says. “That’s pretty good for one year, but we thought there would be more major foun-dations giving us money. I think they’re waiting to see whether or not this is really a stable situation. They don’t want to throw away good money.”

In June, Boston University—and the Chelsea schools—received another blow when Chelsea Mayor John Brennan told the management team that because of a revenue shortfall, $1.2 million would have to be cut from the school system’s $14.3 million 1991 budget. Brennan had asked the city’s aldermen to let the voters decide if they wanted to override the budget cut, the result of 1980’s statewide tax-limiting Proposition 2, but they refused to do so.

This particular matter found Greer and Tiro on the same side of the fence. They issued a joint statement urging the mayor “to reconsider his decision to force the children of Chelsea to shoulder the entire $1.2 million city budget deficit. It is manifestly unjust for the schools to bear this burden alone, while other city departments have been awarded generous increases.” In the end, the aldermen agreed to cut a smaller amount—$686,000—from the education budg-et.

Marta Rosa told the Globe, “BU is finding out what the school committee has known for years, that the city is not willing to finance education appropriately.”

Despite all the financial difficulties and the political infighting, good things do seem to be happening in Chelsea. In June, the teachers’ union finally agreed to a contract that will raise salaries an average of 26 percent by the 1991-92 school year. The district’s 300 public school teachers had not had a pay raise since 1987 and had been working under an expired contract since then. (Still, salaries remain low: A first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree will earn just $19,150 under the new contract, which is below average for the state.)

Most teachers and principals interviewed for this article all seem eager to see the partnership succeed. “Frankly, I’m glad Boston University is here turning things around,” says Shurtleff science teacher Corky O’Rourke. “And if it bothers some teachers, maybe they shouldn’t be working here.” O’Rourke says that when she first started teaching in Chelsea several years ago, the first thing she noticed was how quickly the teachers’ parking lot cleared out at 2:15 p.m. “That really surprised me,” the 30-year-old teacher says. “It gave me the opinion that a lot of teachers didn’t care.”

When Boston University came aboard, O’Rourke says, a handful of teachers at Shurtleff decided they didn’t want to be involved with the partnership, so they left. “But some really great, energetic people came in,” she says. “And that’s how I feel about BU. Here you’ve got new people, new ideas. Let’s do it!” And, she points out, the cars in the teachers’ parking lot don’t disappear as quickly as they used to.

“Things are starting to happen,” says Maggie Lodge, a second-year special-education teacher at Chelsea High. “I don’t know if I want to attribute that to BU so much as to the superintendent; I’m not sure what the dynamics are. But Diana Lam is a remarkable woman. She is encouraging a lot of change. She certainly is giving us the chance to do what we want to.” Lam has asked Lodge and two other teachers to start an alternative high school for older students who dropped out but want to return to school.

Paula Finklestein, who spent 18 years as a teacher in Chelsea before being named principal of Prattville Elementary School last year, says the BU-Chelsea partnership has given her the chance to dream of getting some of the things many principals take for granted: a science lab, a computer lab, a library, a cafeteria, a gymnasium, and an auditorium. For now, she must make do, trying to serve the needs of 285 K-5 students in a building erected in 1897.

“I just had 12 IBM computers arrive,” she says, “and we’re very excited about that. But I don’t have room for a com-puter lab, so I’m putting one in every classroom.”

While she waits for a new building (Boston University’s plan for Chelsea calls for a building to replace both Prattville and another elementary school), Finklestein talks about the two-day-a-week after-school program she started last year. Nearly one-third of Prattville’s students signed up for it. This year, she hopes to extend the program to four days a week. “My goal is to turn this place into a mini community center,” the Chelsea native says.

Finklestein admits that she and other teachers were skeptical when they first heard that Boston University might take control of their schools. She attributes that skepticism to simple fear of the unknown.

But Finklestein soon realized that the partnership had the potential to stop Chelsea’s decline, a decline she has wit-nessed firsthand. “I want to see the city turned around to what it once was,” she says. On a wall in her office is a draw-ing of a dinosaur. Underneath the drawing is the familiar adage, “The dinosaur became extinct because it failed to adapt to change.”

Diana Lam is reflecting on the first year of the Boston University-Chelsea partnership. “It’s been a year full of change,” she says. “Has it been internalized? No, not yet. There is no reason why it should be, yet. I would be suspicious if we claimed it had.”

Are BU’s plans on schedule? she is asked. “No. Some of the goals that BU has outlined require additional funding. If you’re talking about a comprehensive early childhood program from birth through age 5, there’s no way you can do that without additional money. It’s costly. We don’t have that kind of money.

“But I am very hopeful. I think that things can dramatically improve in Chelsea. But no improvement effort will be suc-cessful unless it has broad community support. And I think that’s what I have to work really hard at.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Chelsea At The Crossroads