Chelsea Schools Reopen Amid Uncertainty Over Near-Bankrupt City’s Fiscal Health

By Ann Bradley — September 25, 1991 9 min read
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As children streamed back into this city’s aged schools last week to begin another year of study, some were greeted by an important visitor: James F. Carlin, the state-appointed receiver who now runs this suburban Boston city.

Mr. Carlin’s presence in the classrooms on the first day of school underscored once again the financial plight of the school system, which is entering its third year of management by Boston University.

As Chelsea slid into virtual bankruptcy over the spring and summer, B.u. administrators were forced to lay off nearly one-third of the city’s teachers and, in the process, scrap promising new programs.

The budget crisis threatens to overshadow the gains achieved during the first two years of the partnership, in which B.V., a private university, assumed control of the public schools here in the first such arrangement in the nation.

University officials were well aware of the city’s chronic budget troubles when they began studying the failing school system in 1986. But at the time, recalls Theodore Sharp, chairman of B.U.'s Chelsea management team, the state was in the midst of an economic boom.

“The project was conceived in the heady days of the Massachusetts Miracle,” Mr. Sharp said, “and began in the low days of the recession.”

Boston University’s comprehensive plan for overhauling the city’s antiquated school system called for the city to maintain its level of funding for the schools. Instead, the current $11.6-million school budget falls short even of the amount spent on the schools before the partnership began, and is $4.3 million less than B.v. officials say they need to implement their plans for the city’s 3,700 students.

The teacher layoffs forced B .u. and Chelsea administrators to dismantle several successful alternative programs offered at the high school last year. Instead, high-school students are now following a new schedule of 90-minute class periods designed to increase their exposure to core subjects.

In grades 6 through 12, class sizes have increased--in some cases to as many as 40 students per teacher. Home economics and industrial arts are no longer offered. The four elementary schools, which this year serve students from kindergarten to 8th grade, have no librarians and must share one art and one physical education specialist. Almost all business courses in the high school have been cut, while the sports program was reduced by half.

Classes have been kept small in pre-kindergarten and the primary grades, in keeping with B.V.'S emphasis on early-childhood programs.

‘We Take Our Whacks’

The management team is awaiting word from Mr. Carlin on the schools’ final budget, and officials say they are hopeful that a restructuring of Chelsea’s budget will produce more money for the schools. “I don’t think anyone envisioned how tough this would be,” said Peter R. Greer, the interim superintendent. “We take our whacks and go on.”

The university, which assumed control of the academically troubled schools here in June 1989, has brought considerable resources to bear on the small school district. It takes a three-pronged approach to school improvement, arguing that for urban schools to succeed, “children must be ready to learn, teachers must be ready to teach, and something important must be taught.”

In addition to running the schools, B.U. has opened a health clinic in the high school; set up an “early learning center” offering extended day care; launched a literacy program to teach parents to read to their children and a home-visitation program to help families prepare their children for school; and set up a computer network that links family daycare providers with educational and health resources.

To improve the knowledge and skills of the city’s teachers, B.U. has offered courses for low or no tuition. Last year, 49 Chelsea teachers studied at the university, and n.y. professors regularly visit the city to conduct seminars.

University professors also have begun to rewrite Chelsea’s curriculum to establish clear objectives for each grade. Eventually, B.U. hopes to raise $1.2 million to develop individualized learning plans for each student, although the curricular reforms have not attracted the attention from funders that the early-childhood initiatives have.

Despite the continuing budget uncertainty, the project has shown results, according to B.U. officials.

Test Scores Rise

Chelsea students’ scores on beth the Scholastic Aptitude Test and state basic-skills tests have improved, and nearly twice as many students are taking the S.A.T. The number Of students going on to college also has increased, from 46 percent when B.U. began the project to 55 percent of last year’s graduating seniors.

“It doesn’t satisfy us,” said Mr. Sharp. “Scores are still abysmally low. But we’re making real progress and we want to sustain that.”

Much remains to be done. Chelsea has not had a new school building since 1909 and sits at the top of the state’s list for school construction money. But the board of aldermen voted against spending the $71,000 in local money that would have allowed those state funds to flow to the district.

In order to qualify for the money, the university set up a desegregation program that allows parents to choose the schools their children will attend. Chelsea parents can drop in at the Parent Information Center, located on the bustling main street of Chelsea along with employment offices and bodegas, to gather the latest news on school programs. Descriptions of each school and its offerings are provided in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Khmer.

Since the inception of the partnership, the university has worked to raise money to supplement the meager school budget. Last spring, Chelsea High School won a $705,000 grant from the R.j.R. Nabisco Foundation’s “Next Century Schools” program for a dropout-prevention project. The Davis Educational Foundation also donated $390,000 to extend the early-learning program for 3- and 4-year olds.

To date, the university has raised $3.84 million, mostly from Boston-area companies. But fundraising has been slowed by the state’s economic downturn and by the desire of foundation officials to see results from the project’s first two years, said Joseph S. MacLaughlin 3rd, vice president of A Different September Foundation, the entity created by the university to raise money for the Chelsea schools.

The lack of financial support for education that brought about the decline of Chelsea’s schools also worked against fundraising efforts, according to a study of the project’s first year conducted for the U.S. Education Department, because some foundation executives questioned the city’s capacity to sustain the school projects on its own. (See related story, page 16.)

Polarized Community

Now, the appointment of the receiver has thrown into doubt whether Chelsea can even continue to be a separate city, let alone rally to support its schools. Municipal-finance exports have concluded that the city has an insurmountable “structural deficit” caused by its small size, poor tax base, and needy population composed heavily of the elderly and immigrants.

The city’s social ills translate into increased costs for the schools. The school department devotes $7.6 million of its budget to special education, for example, serving 27 percent of Chelsea’s students. Nationally, about 12 percent of school-age children are enrolled in special-education programs.

The fabric of community life is further strained by the divisions among Chelsea’s longtime white residents--who control the board of aldermen and school committee-its black community, Hispanics, and Southeast Asian population, observers here say.

Representatives of all ethnic groups are included on the Chelsea Executive Advisory Committee, which advises beth B.u. and the school committee on education issues.

Gwendolyn Tyre, an African-American lawyer who chairs the committee and who grew up in Chelsea, said the city is “a community divided by racial backgrounds and burdened with the welfare mentality.”

The university’s takeover of the school system, she said, has “mobilized the community and gotten parents involved in what’s going on educationally, and that’s its greatest success.”

But Ms. Tyre said the dizzying pace of change in the Chelsea schools appears to her to be “change made for the sake of change .”

The program shifts prompted by the fiscal crisis also have taken a toll on administrators.

“Last year, I told them I felt like the Iraqi army after the cuts and the restructuring,” said Anthony M. DiGregorio, headmaster of the Williams School. “This school doesn’t look anything like it did last year.”

Mr. DiGregorio, who has worked in Chelsea for 22 years, said it pained him to see longtime colleagues lose their jobs. Nevertheless, he said he views his job as motivating his teachers.

“I try to convey to them that ‘School has started, let’s go!’ despite friends who have not returned, a class size of 40, not having all the supplies they need, and not being located in a good area of the building.”

Ms. Tyre and others said B.u.'S very visible presence in the city has made it a lightning rod for all manner of criticism, particularly from the police and firefighters who must share the city budget with the schools. Some people have blamed the university for the city’s descent into receivership, said Elizabeth McBride, a school-committee member.

“Truthfully, people are calling me up and asking me to vote them out,” said Ms. McBride, who voted against the partnership. “I say, look, call up the people who voted for them and complain. I’m not going to vote them out--that would be irresponsible at this stage. That’s crazy.”

‘Top Down’ Approach

Ms. McBride, the Chelsea Teachers Union, and a group of Hispanic residents fought against turning over the public-school system to a private university. The union and Hispanic organization filed separate suits against the takeover, charging it was unconstitutional and deprived Chelsea residents of their rights. Those lawsuits are pending.

In the wake of the financial crisis that has rocked Chelsea since the early days of B.U.'S involvement, however, some residents have come to see the university as a bright spot in the city’s uncertain future.

“If we didn’t have B.U. here right now, we would not have schools,” said Blanca Hernandez, the parent of two public-school students and president of the city’s bilingual advisory committee. “Nothing happened before B.U. that was positive for our kids. [Critics] don’t like to accept that they haven’t done anything.”

Much of the criticism of the partnership stems from B.u.'s unabashed top-down approach to school reform. Mr. Greer said he does not believe that what he calls “process, process, process"--school-reform projects that bet on good ideas “bubbling up from the bottom"---will yield the immediate results necessary to turn around urban school districts.

“Process isn’t an ally of the kids,” agreed Mr. Sharp. “They don’t have time for process in this city. They need action.”

The university’s aggressive style continues to draw complaints from teachers who feel left out of the decision-making process.

Paul Renzi, president of the Chelsea Teachers Union, said teachers were not involved in developing the new high-school schedule, for example.

“This is not an academy,” Mr. Renzi said. “It’s basically a blue-collar town. The major percentage of students should learn simple things: how to type, cook, fix up cars. These are the things they need to survive.”

For Lorraine Ruby, however, S.U.'s involvement with the school district provided the needed inspiration to complete a master’s degree program started long ago.

“There’s a standard set that was not here before, and it makes a professional difference,” said Ms. Ruby, who has taught here for 28 years. “It’s not just a question of money, it’s a question of trying to reach the expectations you feel are being put forward by the university.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 1991 edition of Education Week as Chelsea Schools Reopen Amid Uncertainty Over Near-Bankrupt City’s Fiscal Health


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