schools start

^ Boston school parents protesting school start time changes. Photo by Boston Globe.

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Yesterday I wrote about Boston Public Schools management’s difficulties with financial accounts : misfeasance, inefficiency, waste. These are scandal enough, yet as we all know, there’s more. What the dickens were BPS’s executives thinking when they outsourced the planning of school start times to a consultant ?

Doesn’t BPS have enough institutional knowledge on its won, after many decades of billion-dollar budgets and hundreds of managers in staff — not to mention the entire system’s teachers and principals — to plan school start reforms on its own ? Evidently not.

The BPS website links to the following research study by a group known as “Start School Later” :–other-resources.html

I am not a child psychologist and cannot opine on the conclusions asserted in this research. (I will say that in my own school life, from first grade to high school graduation, I started school at 7.30 AM and don’t recall any ill side effects. I always made the honor roll and graduated magna cum laude.) Yet I will say that BPS surely has enough anecdotal testimony in its decades of operating schools to know what start times to impose. The outside research, for which BPS evidently paid substantial money, adds nothing but the common bureaucratic excuse that we call “impartial study.”

That BPS felt a need to seek otiose outside study is bad enough. Worse — much worse — is that it announced start times changes without any parent input at all. Acting on its own hook, the City’s School Committee unanimously voted the time changes at its December 6, 2017.

Again : the time changes may well be a good thing. But the School Committee erred in voting them into place with no public comment. Once upon a time Boston’s schools each had its won Parent-Teacher Association — a PTA, once a revered community institution. PTA’s ended with the Federal Court’s imposition, in 1974, of city-wide school assignment and busing of students from one neighborhood to another in order to integrate schools racially. That Court order, too, was a heavy hand; and the consequences of its heft we still feel today. We still have city-wide busing, and the resulting absence of school and community coinciding.

Because we no longer have PTA’s, parents have no institutional path for dialogue with BPS administration except public comment times at School Committee meetings. So naturally such dialogue as takes place does so ad hoc, as street theater or outcry, cried at a School Committee wholly appointed by the Mayor.

In 1992 we abandoned an elected School Committee that was part of the major charter change voted in the 1981 city election. We had always had an elected committee but citywide. The charter change created school committee members elected by district. I have forgotten why our City’s powers decided it was better to have its school committee be wholly appointed. Whatever the reason given, it was wrong. We see the consequences now. An elected School Committee would never — COULD never — have voted start time changes with no advance discussion.

The outrage did not, however, address the undemocratic basis of our City School Committee. It confronted only the result. Why do start times matter so much ? Simple : parents have to plan their day around those times. If a student who was going to school at 7 AM now goes at 8.30 AM — well after her parent(s) go to work, who is to see them to the bus or the T ? Parents must make plans based on their children’s school start. Those plans have to respect their own job start times. Most parents have not left for work at 7 AM, but by 8.30 almost all have left. The adjustment may seem no big deal to observers, but home schedules often hang on the minute. 90 minute changes matter a lot.

All of the disconnect on full display here could be avoided if Boston had PTA/s, or an elected School Committee, or a school management with an institutional memory. When John McDonough– a Charlestown native and lifelong employee of the Department — was schools Superintendent, from 2012 through 2015, BPS had plenty of institutional memory. It had wisdom and it had political awareness. Tommy Chang, the Superintendent now, has none of these. I am sure of his bona fides and his integrity as a person, but he has looked like a stranger to BPS ways from the first day of his appointment until now. I do not fault him. He walked into a system that only a master of shrewdly knowing moves like McDonough could navigate and master. Chang’s job was hardly made any easier by Mayor Walsh having his own, in house schools advisor, Rahn Dorsey, a man as political as he is educational and who does know what is being said on the street.

I don’t think that I disparage Tommy Chang by noting his almost impossible position rendered worse by his reliance on research and decision making that cuts against the grain of Boston political custom and parental expectation. I also understand the desire, among many, to appoint an outsider — an objective observer not compromised by local politics — as Superintendent. I think, however, that that point of view must give way to political reality. It’s time for a new Superintendent, one who knows the system and has the confidence of the City’s numerously autonomous public schools constituencies. John McDonough had that. I’m not sure there’s another John McDonough available, but we darn sure need one, and fast.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



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