Boston submits school improvement proposal to state

Plan outlines action steps, seeks $10 million for implementation

IN RESPONSE TO scathing state review documenting “entrenched dysfunction” in the Boston Public Schools, the city submitted a proposal Wednesday night to state education officials that vows to make changes across six broad areas that state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said must be addressed in an improvement plan for the district.

The proposed seven-page agreement between state and city officials, which was obtained by CommonWealth, represents the city’s response to an initial proposal Riley and Gov. Charlie Baker shared with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu when they met with her last Friday. 

The proposed agreement hits on all the areas Riley raised, but it’s unclear how far it goes toward the commitments or state oversight terms he may be seeking. The state has not publicly shared its proposal.

The possibility of a state takeover of the district in response to the recent review has set off alarms among Boston leaders. The review was ordered by Riley just over two years after a similarly harsh state report on the Boston schools. The move appeared to reflect his growing frustration with problems in the district and the slow pace of improvements.

The review, released on Monday, described widespread problems in the state’s largest school district, touching on everything from special education to bus transportation and the accuracy of the district’s reporting on graduation and dropout rates.

Without explicitly mentioning receivership, Riley said at a state board of education meeting on Tuesday that his goal is to reach an agreement with the city on a plan for the schools, one that presumably stops short of a state takeover. In testimony at the board meeting, Wu acknowledged the gravity of the  problems facing the district and promised to provide Riley this week with the city’s proposal to deal with them. 

The negotiations with the state are unfolding in the midst of a leadership transition in the city’s schools, with Superintendent Brenda Cassellius departing at the end of June. A search committee has been reviewing applications for the job and is slated to begin interviewing candidates next week. Any move toward receivership, under which the state would exert full control over the district, would throw that process in doubt. 

“Our proposal will empower Boston to drive a reform agenda while establishing a genuine partnership with the state,” Wu said in a statement about the city plan. “We’re proposing specific action steps and timelines for immediate improvement and a foundation for systemic change in areas like special education and transportation. We look forward to the collaboration.”

The six areas that state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said must must be part of a improvement plan for the Boston Public Schools.

Under Boston’s proposal, the city would undertake a “deep redesign of BPS special education services.” The proposal says “inclusion” must be the foundation of the special education services, a reference having special education students taught in mainstream classrooms, not in separate settings. A disproportionate share of students of color in the district end up in separate special education classrooms. 

The state has said the city’s special ed services are “in disarray” and the recent review said the district lacks a consistent policy across all schools for promoting “inclusion” settings for special ed students. 

The state review also pointed to widespread failure in the district’s programming for English language learners, a problem so severe that the US Department of Justice has intervened. “Hundreds of English learners are still not receiving their required EL instruction, and appropriate strategies and systems to improve and monitor quality of instruction are not in place,” the state report said. 

In its proposed agreement with the state, the city vows to develop a “strategic plan for multilingual learners” by October 1, and report to DESE quarterly on the city’s compliance in providing English learners appropriate instruction, as required by federal law. Under the proposal, the state would step forward with assistance on licensing issues for district teachers and provide free test prep courses for teachers planning to take the state test for certification to teach English as a second language. 

Wu has said she’s ready to work with the state, but has been adamant in her opposition to a state takeover.

The draft agreement the city submitted would be signed by Wu, Riley, Boston School Committee chair Jeri Robinson, and Cassellius.

“The parties agree that urgent action must be taken to address the long-standing challenges facing BPS,” it reads. “The City of Boston, the Boston Public Schools, and [the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] agree to work together in a targeted, strengthened partnership to immediately address systemic barriers to educational opportunity, build the operational capacity to implement systemic change, and support Boston’s most vulnerable students–including students with disabilities and English learners–in achieving their full potential.”

The proposed agreement calls for commissioning an independent audit by August 15 of student and staff safety protocols at schools, and commits the city to “respond in a timely manner” to complaints about bullying and other issues received by the state education department. The state review said there were often lengthy delays in the city’s response to such complaints. 

On transportation, under the city proposal, Boston would pledge to achieve an on-time arrival rate for school buses of 93 percent or higher each month, with 98 percent of buses arriving at schools within 15 minutes of their start time. City officials have said reforms in a new contract agreement reached this week with the bus drivers’ union will improve transportation outcomes. 

The state review not only criticized the district’s on-time performance on bus transportation, it accused the city of inflating on-time rates by not including in its calculations the large number of routes that simply go uncovered with no bus for students on that route. 

On facilities, the city plan would have a district “building dashboard” in place by August 15, and by October the city would be utilizing it to implement a “coherent preventive/deferred maintenance plan.” 

Boston would put control systems in place, under the plan, to ensure the accuracy of its data on student withdrawals from the district. The recent state report said the district was not properly verifying students counted as transfers to the other schools and that its graduation rate, as a result, was likely overstated while it was undercounting dropouts. 

The proposal calls for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to provide technical assistance and other help in a number of the areas targeted, and it calls for $10 million in state funding to help the city implement the reforms.

At Tuesday’s state education board meeting where he outlined the six priority areas for Boston to address, Riley said he was “punting” on a discussion of academic outcomes until a new superintendent is in place. 

The state review issued in 2020, which formed the basis for a memorandum of understanding between the state and city on improvement goals, identified performance improvements at a group of more than two dozen Boston schools that perform in the bottom 10 percent of all schools statewide as a priority. 

Under its proposed agreement, the city would produce an “equity analysis” by December 1 that compares funding at these low-performing “transformation schools” and other schools in the district. It calls for a “multistakeholder process” to set goals for student outcomes and other metrics after the new superintendent is hired. 

It’s unclear how big a gulf may exist between the city’s proposal and the plan Wu was given by state officials last week. A spokesperson for the state education department declined to comment on the city’s proposal or on the plan Riley put forward. 

Riley said at Tuesday’s state education board meeting that he hoped to reach an agreement with the city within a week. “I’ll come back to this board in short order and let you know if we were able to come to something that’s mutually acceptable,” he told board members.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.