Pittsburgh, Pa.
Contact Search Subscribe Classifieds Lifestyle A & E Sports News Home
Local News Jobs  Commercial Real Estate  Opinion 
Pittsburgh Map
Place an Ad
Auto Classifieds
Today^s front page
Headlines by E-mail
School board in Massachusetts hands over controls to university

A unique partnership

Monday, December 01, 2003

By Jane Elizabeth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

CHELSEA, Mass. -- Olga Rodriguez doesn't know any of her school board members and couldn't converse with many of them if she did.

Sean Dougherty for the Post-Gazette
Students in the widely diverse Chelsea School District near Boston leave the high school one recent afternoon. In a nationally unprecedented and last-ditch effort to save the troubled district, the elected school board turned over control of the schools to Boston University.
Click photo for larger image.

She barely speaks English, moved here less than three years ago from Colombia, and doesn't understand much about American local government.

But she does know Boston University. And that's all she needed to decide to enroll her children in the Chelsea School District in September.

Boston University is the "management team" for the Chelsea schools. It means, for all practical purposes, that the university runs this public, 5,800-student district. Yes, there's a school board -- elected, even -- but the board handed over its authority to BU during an intensely troubled period in the city's history.

That was 14 years ago, after school board members and other local politicians were accused of everything from nepotism to organized crime and collected indictments on a regular basis. Today, the Chelsea school board -- called a "school committee" in Massachusetts -- continues to allow Boston University to oversee the district. Members signed another five-year contract with BU in July.

It hasn't been a panacea. Student test scores are improving but in many cases are still below average, and attendance is better but in some schools not high enough to meet new federal standards.

Still, the university's oversight has removed much of the politics from school operations and also has improved the district's fiscal management.

Rodriguez, however, simply "knows the university, that they have a good reputation," said Juliette Rodriguez, a Chelsea High School sophomore who translated for her mother one recent Thursday afternoon. They were watching Juliette's brother, Hugo, a junior, play soccer against longtime rival Somerville High School.

That's where the Rodriguez family lived until this year. After a smile and a comment in Spanish from her mother, Juliette also grinned and translated, "She likes the discipline here better."

Chelsea, just over the Tobin Bridge northeast of Boston, is a city of only two square miles and a lot of urban problems. Families in the school district are mostly low-income and move frequently. Twenty languages are spoken by students in the district's eight schools; besides English, the most common are Spanish, Vietnamese and Croatian.

In 1989, when the city was mired in economic and leadership problems, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a bill that allowed the city to hand over school board authority to Boston University.

Sean Dougherty for the Post-Gazette
Douglas Sears, a dean at Boston University, directs a university team that runs the nearby Chelsea (Mass.) School District.

Eventually, a 10-year contract was signed between Chelsea and the university. It called for the city to continue funding its schools at the 1989 level for the entire 10 years. But two years later, the city went into bankruptcy.

The university decided to continue the partnership anyway, and established a private organization called A Different September Foundation to raise funds for the schools.

Boston University is the only university in the country with this unique arrangement, one that "is not well understood by anyone," said Douglas Sears, dean of BU's school of education.

The university has sole authority in naming the superintendent and serves as "a consulting group" for the superintendent, said Sears, who served as superintendent for five years. By contract, the university also has the power to "perform all of the management functions otherwise vested [to the school board] by state and local law" including selecting textbooks, hiring and firing employees, and conducting union negotiating sessions.

The management team, unlike the elected board, is purposely made up of people with credentials and skills in particular areas. They include a professor who holds a doctorate in reading, another with expertise in language, BU's associate vice president of personnel, an administrator from the university controller's office, and a Fulbright scholar with a doctorate in political science.

"We have a clear notion about what ought to be done in schooling," said Sears, who chairs the management team. The university "is unequivocal on a couple of [instruction] issues."

They've ensured that methods like phonics, the highly-scripted teaching style known as direct instruction, and English language immersion are taught in Chelsea schools.

Sears said those choices "have never been an issue with parents. Parents come in when there's no toilet paper."

The university "shields the superintendent from the political nonsense that goes on in most communities," said Superintendent Irene Cornish. "I can focus on student achievement; I don't have to worry about doing the dance" to wheedle funding from City Council.

Still, it hasn't always been smooth.

"The early years were turbulent," said Sears, especially when the city went bankrupt. The district went through three superintendents -- including Sears -- until Cornish, a former educator-turned-lawyer, was hired away from her private law practice.

"We've quieted down a lot," Sears said. But he acknowledged that a few community residents -- including the "Cambridge lefties" and a local newspaper reporter who Sears believes is friendly to the opponents -- "still really can't stand us."

"They've harmed our fund raising, our reputation," Sears said.

Juan Vega is one of the most vocal dissenters.

Vega, executive director of Centro Latino de Chelsea, a social services organization, has objected to the lack of Latino input into the board's decision to create and extend the partnership with BU.

"There were zero Latinos on the Chelsea school [board] at the time they approved this arrangement," said Vega, and the board has no Latinos today.

He also has criticized former Boston University chancellor John Silber for leading a controversial campaign to abolish bilingual education in Massachusetts schools.

"I won't stand here and say nothing has changed or improved in Chelsea schools. That would be disingenuous," he said. "But what we have here is not sustainable."

Vega and others believe that the university will end its association with Chelsea when the current contract runs out, taking its foundation money and expertise and leaving a school board that isn't accustomed to making decisions.

"Right now, the BU management team is the total authority. All decisions get made there ... and they never disagree."

The school board's role, Vega said, "is to show up for the science fair and smile for the camera."

Vega is optimistic, however, about a recent major change in the way school boards are to be selected. A court ruling last month will allow upcoming board members to be elected by district rather than at-large, a change that he believes will result in more diverse representation.

Cornish, too, has not always been happy with the current school board. Shortly after she was hired as superintendent, she attended a school board meeting to introduce herself. Audience members and at least one board member, who had hoped a longtime Chelsea educator would be named superintendent, weren't happy to see her and held signs that said: "Chelsea jobs for Chelsea people."

"They were extremely rude," said Cornish, a Connecticut native who speaks Spanish and French. "That was the first time I realized, uh-oh, this could be a political mess."

What's in this arrangement for Boston University?

The question comes up so often that some BU officials have a standard response: "It's the pleasure of doing good," said Sears.

Some are a little annoyed at the intimation that there could be an ulterior motive. For Boston University, "this is as altruistic as any venture could be," Cornish said.

Part of the payoff is the satisfaction of seeing improvements in schools, Sears said. Music instruction was added with the aid of an Annenberg grant, numerous scholarships are given to students and teachers each year, and the district has seen its first new schools in 90 years with up-to-date equipment throughout the district.

"If BU wasn't involved with this district, we wouldn't have a nice building here like we do," said English teacher J. Kirby, pointing to the new wing that opened this year at the high school.

He acknowledged that some in the community don't appreciate BU's involvement: "It's like Big Brother, I guess." But, added Kirby, who once worked as a substitute teacher in surrounding districts, "these other districts don't have the facilities that we have here, the computers, the equipment, the new schools."

Without Boston University's intervention, Cornish said, "There is no question in my mind that the state would be running the district" as they are in the nearby Lawrence schools.

Sears praised the elected school board for renewing the BU contract this year.

"They're really gutsy to do this at this point," he said. Back in 1989, "they were desperate. But today there is a certain amount of political risk. They know people will ask, 'What kind of school committee are you if you give away your authority?' "

E-mail this story E-mail this story  Print this story Printer-friendly page

Search |  Contact Us |  Site Map |  Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise |  About Us |  What's New |  Help |  Corrections
Copyright ©1997-2007 PG Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.