A Town and Gown Reform

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Chelsea, Mass--School officials here, in a dramatic and apparently unprecedented move, are asking Boston University to take over the management of the city's troubled public schools.

By a 5-to-1 vote, the school committee in this blue-collar suburb of Boston voted in July to enlist the private university as an unpaid consultant while lawyers draw up a formal contract.

The proposed 10-year agreement, which is being closely watched by educators across the nation, could go into effect as early as next year if it is approved by the state legislature.

While universities have often collaborated with districts to address specific problems, the arrangement would mark the first time a university was hired to manage an entire school system, according to observers.

Such an extreme step is necessary, sponsors of the plan argue, if the impoverished district is to reverse its flagging educational fortunes. Moreover, they say, Boston University's plans--which call for improvements in curriculum, early-childhood education, and adult learning--could eventually serve as a model for other urban districts.

"This has brought a sense of hope for us, where previously there was none," said Bruce G. Robinson, chairman of the Chelsea School Committee. "We are hopeful that what works here can be taken across the nation."

"If nothing works here, and the under taking is too ambitious," added Dr. Robinson, a local dentist, "I don't think that speaks well for the future."

But some educators here and elsewhere--including leaders of a national administrators' union--remain skeptical. They question whether the university can garner the financial and political support necessary to implement its ambitious proposals.

And some critics, contending that a private institution is ill-equipped to manage a public school system, warn that the move represents a ''troubling precedent."

"Public schools should be in the hands of parents and people in the school district," said Ted Elsberg, president of the American Federation of School Administrators, which voted last month to oppose the move. "The school committee should have maintained control."

"Chelsea needs something to be done," said Mr. Elsberg, whose union does not represent the district's administrators. "But that doesn't mean what was done is the best thing to do."

John R. Silber, the high-profile president of Boston University, has dismissed such criticism as being "predicated on ignorance of the facts of what education institutions truly do."

"There are schools of education, which, like Pontius Pilate, wash their hands of what goes on in schools," he said. "There is no place for innocence. We cannot stand by watching a disaster and refuse to help."

"If we get caught being a benefit to society by putting an end to child neglect and institutional child abuse and by providing equal opportunity for every child," he said, "we will be very proud of ourselves."

Losing a 'Gallant Fight'

The contract negotiations mark a significant step in a three-year effort by the school committee to overhaul Chelsea's schools, which have the highest dropout rate and some of the lowest average standardized-test scores in the state.

Once a proud working-class suburb, this city of 25,000 across the Mystic River from Boston has been plagued in the past decade with many of the ills besetting urban centers nationwide. It has seen a decline in its industrial base and an influx of immigrants from the poorer nations of Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Largely as a result of these changes, the city has become one of the poorest in Massachusetts. It ranks near the top in unemployment, child-bearing rates among teen-agers, and the proportion of non-English-speaking families. And it ranks near the bottom in per-capita income and educational attainment.

Such conditions have taxed the 3,300-pupil district's capacity to operate effectively, according to Dr. Robinson.

"We realized that even though we were fighting a gallant fight to provide an excellent education system, we no longer were," he said.

In an effort to turn its educational fortunes around, district leaders contacted Boston University officials, who had previously made overtures to Boston and Lowell to manage those cities' school systems.

'Finger in Every Pie'

Although the Boston and Lowell offers had been rebuffed by officials there, they had appeal for Andrew P. Quigley, a 30-year veteran of the Chelsea School Committee and chief sponsor of the proposal. Mr. Silber, he said, had suggested creative solutions to those districts' problems.

By contrast, Mr. Quigley argued in an interview, the trend toward state takeovers of "academically bankrupt" districts--an option employed this year by New Jersey in its nationally publicized move to seize control of the Jersey City schools--represents a backward step.

"I am of the belief that the government that puts a chicken in every pot has a finger in every pie," he said. "I don't want another bureaucracy telling us what to do."

According to the school committeeman, who is editor and publisher of the town's only daily newspaper, the Chelsea Record, Boston University's president "knows better than the state what students are lacking, what they should be prepared in."

In 1985, when he was chairman of the school committee, Mr. Quigley approached Mr. Silber and began discussing the possibility of a management agreement.

At about the same time, the state legislature--which had provided a $5-million no-interest loan to enable the financially strapped city government to pay its bills--mandated a study of the Chelsea schools.

Richard Voke, Chelsea's representative in the state House and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, steered $250,000 in federal and state funds to Boston University to conduct the study.

'Abysmal' Performance

The results of that 10-month examination, contained in a report released in April, showed the Chelsea schools "in crisis" and pointed to remedies that form the basis of the town's university-based management proposal.

"Judged by various measures of outcomes, the performance of the schools is abysmal," the report, "A Model for Excellence in Urban Public Education," concludes.

"Working with inadequate facilities, a weak financial structure, and marginal resources, the schools' response has been to accept the status quo and a slow, inevitable decline," it says. "Poor leadership at both the city and school level is a major factor; there is no one who has challenged the prevailing assumption that the schools are powerless to reverse this decline."

The report recommends the creation of a "family-school approach" to education, which would involve the provision of child-care and health and nutrition services to preschoolers, information and support for parents, and adult-literacy and English-as-a-second-language instruction.

In addition, it calls for overhauling the district's curricula; forging stronger links with businesses and the community; expanding and upgrading school facilities; and boosting teachers' training, pay, and professionalism.

According to the study's projections, student test scores will increase by 20 percent by the end of five years under such a plan, bringing students here up to the statewide average. Dropout rates will decline from 15 percent annually to "well below 10 percent," it says, and the number of high-school graduates will increase by 10 percent.

And while outside consultants typically have "delivered their reports and left," the study asserts, Boston University "stands ready to join Chelsea in creating a new vision of excellence in urban education."

'Brave and Noble Experiment'

To create that vision, the university proposed what Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association, termed a "brave and noble experiment": to itself take over the school system's administration.

Other universities have operated laboratory schools within districts, Mr. Shannon noted, but the Chelsea plan would mark the first time a university has run all the schools in a district.

"This is a new look at administrative leadership," Mr. Shannon said. "The issue will be to what extent administrative leadership can be given at a distance."

"Instead of the central office being downtown," he noted, "the central office will be housed in the university."

Although details of the management agreement have yet to be worked out, the university has hired Peter R. Greer as dean of its school of education to run the program. Mr. Greer, a former superintendent of the Portland, Me., public schools, recently stepped down as a deputy undersecretary in the U.S. Education Department.

The university also persuaded the school committee to adopt a resolution this summer that would allow university experts to work as unpaid consultants until the management agreement is signed and gains the approval of the legislature. State lawmakers must approve any changes in the city's home-rule charter, which grants authority to the school committee.

The resolution--adopted over the objections of one member, Elizabeth McBride, who argued that the board should wait until the management agreement is completed--would "keep the process moving" while the legislature is out of session, Dr. Robinson said.

Legislative approval is expected, and state officials said they would not interfere except to review the agreement to ensure that it conforms with state law.

"This is a local-control state," said Harold Raynolds Jr., the Massachusetts commissioner of education.

Questions of Authority

Despite the enthusiasm of the majority of the school committee, some members expressed concern that the university would usurp their authority.

"I have no problems with them coming in as a partner and working with us," said Ms. McBride. "But if they take powers away from the school committee, I have problems with that. We have been elected by the people."

Mr. Silber responded that the committee would retain the ultimate authority over the schools.

"They are not evading their responsibility," said Mr. Silber, "they are exercising it in the most effective way they can."

"Both sides recognize that we have a shared responsibility," agreed Dr. Robinson. "The school committee is not looking to abrogate its responsibility. [The university] will work with us to solve our problems."

"But we have to give them enough slack," he added. "We're not going to dissolve the school committee. But they have to have some latitude, some room to move to make tremendous changes."

Counter to University Mission?

Some academic observers have questioned, however, the appropriateness of a university's undertaking such a task.

"I don't see how taking over a school system fits into the mission of a research university," said Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University. "How will it affect research? There is precious little time for that."

In addition, Mr. Kirst noted that as a private institution, Boston University "has no formal charge for public service."

But other scholars, such as James Larkin, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania's graduate school of education, noted that Continued on Following Page Continued from Preceding Page

private colleges frequently provide services for public schools, including teacher training, curriculum development, and testing.

And universities have frequently issued recommendations for improving school systems, said A. Harry Passow, the Jacob H. Schiff professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College, who conducted a massive study of the District of Columbia public schools in the 1960's.

To Mr. Silber, a school of education uninvolved in public-school teaching and administration "seems as fully bizarre as a medical school divorced from clinical practice."

The proposal's critics, he charged, are "animated by the fear that we will succeed."

"That would demonstrate the bankruptcy of education schools in many universities that stayed above the battle," he said.

Cost of Reforms

The arrangement's sponsors insist that, in addition to providing new leadership for the schools, the Boston University proposal has the potential for making the Chelsea district a national model in urban school reform.

Although its initial costs are high--an expected increase in the city's school budget from $12 million to $18 million over the first three years--Mr. Silber said that the program's "long-range social savings are enormous."

Pupils who enter school with the proper background and who receive instruction according to their own interests and abilities are less likely, he noted, to drop out of school and become involved in crime or dependent on public assistance.

Still, some Chelsea officials question whether the district can afford the reforms.

"Everything in the plan was recommended at one time or another by people in the system," said Ms. McBride of the school committee. "The reason they haven't been implemented is money."

The city has been hard-pressed to raise revenues on its own, she said. Its small size--two square miles, including sections that were devastated by a 1973 fire--limits the amount of property that can be taxed.

Boston University has pledged to raise federal and state funds, as well as support from foundations, corporations, and individuals, to help finance its ideas.

But Mr. Silber acknowledged that there is "no guarantee" those sources will supply the needed money.

Nevertheless, said Susan H. Fuhrman, director of the center for policy research in education at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, the change in leadership alone could improve the schools. "You can have a radical change in a low-performing district without additional funds," she said.

Changing Community 'Habits'

Some skeptics have also questioned whether the university can attract the support from the community needed to implement its plan.

The proposal calls for increasing parental involvement by hiring "family specialists" to provide training for parents on how to deal with the schools.

In addition, it recommends that adults, particularly senior citizens, serve as tutors and as "buddies," or role models. It also urges local businesses and civic groups--through a proposed "Chelsea Compact,'' modeled after a similar agreement in Boston--to offer special activities for students and pledge jobs for the district's high-school graduates.

But such programs will require a change in habits, most local leaders interviewed said, since residents here have been relatively uninvolved in the school system. As the university's report puts it, "Educational decline has not been a campaign issue that has aroused much public interest."

"It isn't now, regretfully," said Mr. Quigley, the veteran school-committee member. "There was a time it was."

But Mr. Greer predicted that the program's success could turn that situation around.

"People are used to the system as it is," he said. "Early successes will give them a taste of what it can be for the children and themselves."

Chelsea's businesses are also unlikely to provide the type of support the report recommends, noted J. Frank Herlihy, the district's superintendent of schools.

"Most businesses here are self-owned, with 2 to 10 employees," he said. "Those types of programs work with larger-based employers."

In order for a "Chelsea Compact" to be successful, he said, "you've got to have linkages outside the Chelsea community."

Another Rochester?

Perhaps more important than gaining community and business support, observers pointed out, will be the university's enlistment of support from teachers in implementing its blueprint.

"People at the school level are concerned when they hear talk about education reform that so much is imposed upon them, as opposed to responding to their particular needs," said Nevin C. Brown, assistant director for urban affairs at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. Mr. Brown has directed a program of university-district collaboratives in 16 cities.

Boston University officials have started to work with local teachers, said Donald W. Menzies, president of the Chelsea Teachers' Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. But, he added, while the proposal was being drawn up, the city's teachers were shut out.

"We have not been without suggestions for the last 30 years on how the school system should be improved," he said. "We are not devoid of ideas."

Mr. Silber responded that teachers will be intimately involved in the development of specific reform plans and their implementation. "There was no point in involving teachers in something that might not happen," he said in explaining why teachers were not involved in the earlier stages of the project.

Mr. Menzies added that he would work with Mr. Greer to try to mold the proposal along the lines of reforms currently being implemented in Rochester, N.Y., Dade County, Fla., and Hammond, Ind. Teachers in those districts have been actively involved in ambitious plans to rethink the way schools operate.

"We are eager to add Chelsea to the list of communities where real, legitimate education reform is taking place," said Mr. Menzies. "At a time when Chelsea is going to make a right-hand turn, I would hate to see us squander an opportunity for real education reform."

"Another opportunity like this won't come around for another 150 years," the union leader said.

Vol. 08, Issue 01

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