Boston’s long-unfulfilled promise to high school students

Struggle to find a home for Kennedy health career academy is symptom of a larger problem

WITH THE SCHOOL YEAR underway, most students have happily returned to familiar buildings and classrooms. But for students who attend the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers (EMK), an in-district charter high school within Boston Public Schools, it’s been a painful reminder of their school’s 16-year search for a permanent home.

After having a space at Northeastern University for 15 years, EMK students were relocated to nearby Wentworth Institute of Technology in the spring, but only as a temporary solution. During public comment at the first school committee meeting of the year on September 1, EMK students, alumni, and educators expressed their fury at the most recent relocation proposal from BPS:  Move half of its students to an abandoned school building — originally built for elementary school students in 1906 — and one deemed by the city as unsuitable for high school use as recently as 2016.

My organization, Boston Schools Fund, began a partnership with EMK, a high-quality, high-demand school, in 2017 to support its growth and success.

The EMK community is rightfully frustrated — as should be the broader Boston community — when it appears as though BPS and city leaders have thrown up their hands at the task of finding space for 200 juniors and seniors to complete their high school education, much less a space that facilitates their preparation for the very professions that have saved countless lives over the last 18 months.

The district’s solution is especially perplexing when it is clear that BPS has plenty of under-utilized space suitable for high school students in areas of the city close to the Longwood Medical area, where EMK students complete critical internships and training. There are at least three existing high schools and two middle schools with more than enough space to accommodate all of EMK’s students.

But as any EMK student could tell you, the lack of support for EMK is a symptom of a much larger problem in Boston that continues to go undiagnosed and untreated. At the September 1 school committee meeting, parents asked pointed questions, yet received no answers. Why aren’t there multiple rigorous and engaging high school pathways that meet the needs of Boston students? Why do families feel like they have to leave the city to find an adequate high school? Why did BPS spend an entire year and countless hours discussing how fewer than 2 percent of its students would get into its three exam schools?

Boston should have world-class high schools for all students. Instead we’ve been told since 2015 that they were being redesigned. No redesign is visible except for the recent adoption of MassCore graduation standards that are commonplace in most Massachusetts schools. We’ve been told all Boston high schools will soon have programs like Advanced Placement, career and technical education, and International Baccalaureate — programs that have been around for decades in any other city. None have emerged.

How is it that Boston students are still waiting for the promises from the last decade to arrive at their schools? How is it that after a year of students learning remotely (on flexible schedules that better suited the needs of high schoolers) we are going back to a system that is not designed around student needs?  How is it that our city has a school that prepares hundreds of Boston students for high-paying, high-demand jobs in the health care sector and it can’t find a proper facility after 16 years?

Boston’s next mayor must make real, tangible progress on this issue. This is about more than just exam schools or improving Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. This is about swift and transparent action to dramatically improve the quality of options available for every high school student in Boston.

Action should begin with setting clear targets for increasing college and career readiness across BPS and reporting on progress with disaggregated data by student group and school type. Then, the district should immediately identify the models of excellence that can be scaled to reach greater numbers of students and rapidly increase options available to families.

Schools like EMK, the Margarita Muñiz Dual-Language Academy, the Henderson Inclusion School, Boston International Newcomers Academy, and New Mission provide a rich starting ground for expansion but still need physical space and support to expand. Lastly, deeper work in partnership with students, families, civic organizations, educators, and the business community is critical to identify the next generation of high school models that will propel Boston youth toward economic success, civic leadership, and personal growth. Federal ESSER funds and philanthropic dollars could support diverse teams dedicated to designing new models, studying proven programs from outside of Boston, and implementing them over the next three to five years.

While there are many approaches we could take as a city, another generation of high school students cannot afford to wait for an answer while our leaders decide what to do.

Kerry Donahue is a former high school teacher and chief strategy officer at Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit advancing educational equity in Boston.