A Frustrated M.I.T. Severs Its Tie With Boston Partnership

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Citing indifference on the part of Boston school officials, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has given up on its effort to create a science and mathematics magnet school and will end its involvement in the city's highly celebrated school-business partnership program.

An MIT official said last week that the university's decision to end its 12-year relationship with the school next month was prompted by recent discussions in the Boston school department regarding the conversion of the Mario Umana Harbor School of Science and Technology into a regular middle school.

"It's simply a question of our capacity to contribute,'' said Walter L. Milne, who has been MIT's top official working with the Boston public schools. "We have some expertise in dealing with a science and math school, but not a middle school.''

But Joseph Arangio Jr., Umana's headmaster, said there were other, more negative, reasons for the souring of the relationship.

"MIT felt there was a long string of broken promises on the part of the school department,'' Mr. Arangio said. "They thought the [magnet school] would be somewhat long-lasting. But over time, they became convinced that the school department was not serious about having a school of science and technology.''

Mr. Arangio said talk about closing the school, which has 900 students in grades 7-12, consolidating it with another school, or changing its focus had "surfaced regularly'' in the past few years.

Ian Forman, a spokesman for the Boston school system, referred questions on the MIT-Umana relationship to Edward Dooley, a school-system official who directs the city's school-business-partnership program.

Mr. Dooley did not return several telephone calls last week, but he told reporters earlier this month, "There may be a mismatch between the skills of the students and the expectations of some universities. If you can't do simple arithmetic functions very well and don't understand fractions, you are more than a few years away from the calculus skills you need to go to MIT''

Dates to Desegregation Order

The university's relationship with the Umana school was part of a program that grew out of Boston's court-ordered desegregation over a decade ago. Under that program, 20 Boston-area colleges were paired with individual schools to provide resources and develop curriculum.

The partnership program was incorporated into the Boston Compact, which began in 1982 as an alliance of business, university, and government officials to raise achievement levels and lower the dropout rate in the city's schools.

Since 1982, universities have contributed about $25 million in tutoring, scholarships, and other services to the schools. The compact has been touted as a model partnership program and has been copied by several school systems around the country.

MIT's decision makes it the third college to drop out of the original pairing program, according to Robert B. Schwartz, the former director of the Boston Compact and now an education adviser to Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

Brandeis University and Tufts University ended their relationship with two schools several years ago when the focus of the schools changed, Mr. Schwartz said.

Harvard University, which was paired with Roxbury High School, remained in the compact even after the school closed. Instead of pairing with another school, Harvard opened a center for principals at its education school.

"An option for MIT would have been to provide systemwide kind of help on science and technology,'' Mr. Schwartz said. "There's a whole mess of things MIT could do.''

But Mr. Milne indicated that by pulling out of Umana, MIT had cut its ties with the Boston schools.

"We never joined the compact, [the Umana relationship] just made us a part of it,'' Mr. Milne said. He said that MIT remained "the lead institution in what is in effect the Cambridge Compact,'' a similar program with the Cambridge school system.

Defective, Missing Software

The frustration MIT faced in creating a magnet science and math school at Umana is suggested, Mr. Milne said, by its "Control Data'' room, which eight years ago was filled with state-of-the-art computer equipment donated by the Control Data Corporation.

The idea for the room was conceived by MIT educators, who wrote the grant proposal for the laboratory. They envisioned an "interactive'' educational program--a computer system that would test students' skills and allow them to proceed to increasingly difficult levels. Until three years ago, the lab was used for remedial English and math instruction.

But the "facility has been unused for the past three years, for no reasons that have to do with MIT,'' said Mr. Milne.

"That lab has needed financial support and teacher support,'' said Mr. Arangio, noting that "it's expensive to maintain and repair.'' Today, some of the software is defective or missing, rendering the entire system useless, he said.

MIT experts looked at the equipment last year, Mr. Arangio said, and advised the school to junk the system. "They told us to take our money and buy microcomputers,'' he said.

'Boston Provided Excuses'

Former Boston school officials said they regretted MIT's decision, but insisted that any blame for the relationship's failure should be shared by all involved.

"I'm disappointed that Boston did not figure out a better way to use MIT's substantial resources over the years,'' said Mr. Schwartz. "When you have institutions with a lot of resources, and a school system with the kinds of needs as Boston's, there should be an effort on both sides to find ways to work together.''

However, Mr. Schwartz said he admired the perseverance of the colleges that had remained in the compact. "If you were looking for excuses to drop out of the relationship, Boston provided fresh excuses almost by the hour,'' he said.

"I'm sorry to hear that,'' said Robert R. Spillane, who is credited with starting the Boston Compact when he was superintendent of schools in the early 1980's. "I wanted to make Umana a magnet school.''

But Mr. Spillane, who is now superintendent of the Fairfax County, Va., school system, laid the blame on the federal district court's decade-long stewardship of Boston's schools.

"That has virtually destroyed any initiative in the system on curriculum and programs,'' he said.

He said MIT's relationship with the Boston schools was "extremely strong'' during his tenure. The university developed the specifications for a $1-million telephone system for the schools, which Mr. Spillane said would otherwise have cost about $50,000 in consulting fees.

Funds Cut, Prototypes Imposed

A report on the compact completed last year with support from the universities and the school system found that the large institutions within Boston's city limits--including Boston University, the University of Massachusetts, and Northeastern--had broadened their commitments, while the universities in the metropolitan area--such as MIT, Harvard, and Tufts--had pulled back.

Although the school-university relationships were begun largely independent of the school-system bureaucracy, the program is becoming more centralized and standardized, the report found.

The reason for that shift, the report said, is Superintendent Laval S. Wilson's requirement that partnership programs be modeled after "prototypes'' created by the school system.

Another reason, Mr. Arangio noted, is a directive by Mr. Wilson that state funds previously available for partnerships now must be used for other programs, including teaching English as a second language.

State funds for universities in the compact were cut by 16.9 percent this year, according to the report.

The report concluded that the imposition of prototypes and the reduction of funds had created anger and confusion among the schools and universities. But the report also found strong support for the partnerships on both sides.

Mr. Spillane downplayed the suggestion that MIT's pullout signified a weakness in the compact. He cited the growth in the program's endowment, which has risen from about $3 million three years ago to $15 million this year.

"If anything, it's just getting stronger,'' he said. "Like anything else, the fine edges will have to be honed.''

Vol. 07, Issue 35

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