Education Opinion

Boston University and Chelsea: First Lessons

By Peter R. Greer — May 16, 1990 8 min read

The landmark partnership between Boston University and the Chelsea, Mass., public schools is almost a year old.

This project represents an unprecedented relationship between a large, independent university and a neighboring school system. Under a contract signed by Boston University and the Chelsea School Committee, the university will manage the 3,600-pupil district for 10 years.

Subject to the committee’s ongoing review, the university’s plan is structured to ensure that teachers are ready to teach, with the assistance of high-caliber in-service opportunities; that something important is being taught, with the creation of essential curriculum objectives; and that students are ready to learn, with the development of a broad-based health program and an emphasis on parent education.

Over the 10-year period, the university and Chelsea staffs will design, among other programs, annual individualized learning plans for all students, a K-12 ethics-and-character curriculum, and home-based, high-tech preschools. The partnership will address such issues as high truancy and dropout rates, low test scores, and low levels of parent involvement.

Since the university must annually report results to the state legislature, to a governor’s oversight panel, and to the Chelsea community, as well as deal with the close scrutiny of the local and national media, there will be sufficient accountability. If the resources of a leading university cannot make a difference in working with an urban school district over a 10-year period, then questions must be raised about whether more drastic measures--for example, voucher systems or state takeovers of districts in chaos--must be taken to improve urban schools--or whether it is even possible to improve them.

On the other hand, should this effort succeed, then public-school educators, universities, business leaders, and policymakers can rejoice--and learn. The Chelsea project has implications for the entire nation.

The people of Chelsea and the university have already learned a great deal during this first year. Other struggling school systems--which are generally alike--may find several of the lessons from our experience valuable:

Every reform project either grows up or grows old. The difference is not complicated. In many cases, school reforms fail because people look at daunting conditions and lose hope.

For the residents of Chelsea, conditions are often hard, but those who are involved in the current project have the maturity to recognize that fact without giving up.

Chelsea has struggled with poverty, emigration, and new immigration. The city has tangibly declined since the great fires that destroyed entire neighborhoods in 1973. The citizens’ sense of community, aspiration, vision, and self-respect has frayed before the lingering anxiety: What bad thing will happen next?

This kind of fear becomes corrosive despair when people lose confidence in the power of the community and the schools to bring events under control. People wonder why they should contribute when, in the end, neither community nor schools can help them as individuals.

The resulting isolation often leads to heightened personal animosities, systems of patronage, and short-range power grabs. Long-range planning collapses because the chronic instability becomes the norm. Those who learn to maneuver under these conditions protect their own interests, and the less agile suffer.

With the decline of the community comes the erosion of any shared system of values. And all of these developments breed cynicism--the contemptuous dismissal of efforts to make things better.

Boston University is stressing the positive--enough has been written about educational misery in Chelsea. Two full-tuition, four-year university scholarships have been awarded this year to Chelsea seniors. Over 200 tutors and mentors have served individuals and groups of children in Chelsea. A fraternity adopted an entire elementary school; it has provided tutors and will bring youngsters to the university campus and to Red Sox baseball games.

A possible collaboration between Bunker Hill Community College and the Chelsea schools would provide daily opportunities for Chelsea students to see young people like themselves in postsecondary learning and job-related activities.

The district’s superintendent, Diana Lam, is tireless in bringing various community groups together to work on projects. She has also introduced several publications highlighting the work of Chelsea’s teachers, administrators, and support staff. And everyone is clear about her vision for the schools.

While many of the nation’s schools are obsessed with consensus decisionmaking, Ms. Lam and the university are leading; attempting to model effective practices, they are using both “top down” and “bottom up’’ approaches.

Certain notions of involvement, while understandable, can impede reform. Some people seem to want involvement mainly as proof of their rights rather than as an opportunity to contribute. That confusion has been fueled by national calls that misinterpret “bottom up” change and site management. If the university had agreed to all such demands for involvement from various groups this past year, the project would not have progressed as well as it has.

According to this view, most of the superintendent’s or university’s decisions would be reviewed by the school committee both before and after the fact, by the executive advisory committee, by the Chelsea Teachers’ Union, by the administrators’ association, by the Hispanic leadership, by each PTA, by the Chelsea Coalition for Quality Education, and by others too numerous to mention. Certainly, participation by Chelsea groups is central to this project--but not for the purpose of battling over turf.

We will work out problems together, as everybody realizes that the only turf that matters is the turf where Chelsea’s children must live and learn.

The university has resisted all efforts to turn citizen involvement into a “vote counting” back-door for groups and individuals who see the university’s presence as a grand opportunity to gain power--even at the expense of the students. The university’s model is simple: It will lead, seek advice before making key decisions, adjust thinking, and make decisions--and allow local officials and community leaders, parents, staff members, and others to do the same.

Presently, the university is attempting to help a 14-member citizen’s group function effectively, to empower the school committee with new ideas and procedures, and to increase parents’ interest in their PTAs and school councils.

One way to make a difference is to change the ethos of the school system, not merely restructure the organization, schedule, and in-service opportunities. To effect such a change is but one good reason to have an agreement for 10 years. Toward a new ethos, we have established the foundation of a good relationship with the American Federation of Teachers and the Chelsea Teachers’ Union. Both organizations have been highly professional in helping us with quest, a program designed to create a community of learners among teachers and administrators. The unions also participated generously and effectively when we put together 8th-grade clusters enabling teams of teachers to work with the same students, and when we met for spirited discussions of what may soon be a new three-year contract with the Chelsea teachers.

To develop and maintain a mutual trust among the university, citizens, politicians, and teachers, as well as among the the staff members themselves, the university has, in an ongoing effort, sought input from the schools about their needs. For example, instruction from the university’s school of music has partially answered the schools’ hope to strengthen their offerings in instrumental music. The university has designed a summer retreat for school-based parent-teacher councils, and it will soon hold its second all-day meeting with representatives from the school committee, citizens’ advisory group, and other community organizations. And on the advice of the school committee, the university has instituted monthly meetings between its management team and the committee.

The primary focuses for improving schools must be the quality of the teaching and administrative staffs and clear accountability for results. The university has involved teachers, parents, and others in the hiring process and is redoing all personnel applications. It has designed in-service activities for administrators and a series of special summer and academic-year programs for teachers, with emphasis on curriculum, instruction, and promising practices. In addition, at a time of harsh financial conditions in Massachusetts, the university is offering Chelsea teachers paid activities during the summer.

The university will request frequent reports on how schools are using test results and other data.

The success of any school system depends on the health of every newborn baby and skilled care for every child during the first years of life. Developing a high-quality teaching force and curriculum will not be enough if a school’s students were once drug-dependent or malnourished babies; the game is lost if our attention to children begins only at ages 3 and 4.

In conjunction with the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Chelsea Health Center, the university’s schools of public health and social work have devised a “health moves” program that establishes licensed, school-based health clinics and expanded outreach to the homes. We have also adopted exemplary programs from Texas, Connecticut, and Missouri in nutrition and parent education. (It is not humiliating for school systems to borrow promising practices from one another.)

The Chelsea-Boston University partnership has become much more than an unprecedented “project.” Over the course of this year’s experience, students, teachers, administrators, parents, city officials, and citizens who care deeply about Chelsea have become companions and neighbors. When every Chelsea child’s right to a high-caliber education is met, then we will say “community,” and we will say it with admiration for all whose fortitude and good judgment made it so.

Our aspirations are anchored in the knowledge that Chelsea’s children can be given the educational opportunities they need to become the sort of men and women whose lives are fulfilling and whose contributions are enduring. Those adults of tomorrow are the children who inspire us today.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 1990 edition of Education Week as Boston University and Chelsea: First Lessons