Tortured charter school building battle takes a new turn
Roxbury Prep says it will also explore other sites
ROXBURY PREPARATORY CHARTER SCHOOL, whose three-year odyssey to win approval to build a high school in Roslindale has turned into a toxic battle touching on issues of race, class, and the place of charter schools in Boston, is pivoting away from the contested site — at least for now — in order to explore other possible locations for a new school.
A city-sponsored public hearing on the high school proposal, which had been slated for Tuesday of last week, was abruptly postponed “until further notice,” according to an email sent out by the Boston Planning and Development Agency four days before the meeting. The school said it is not abandoning the Roslindale proposal but is exploring other possible sites for the school.
For well over a year, leaders of the school have charged the Walsh administration with unfairly dragging its feet by not bringing the building proposal to a vote before the BPDA board, which must approve it.
Roxbury Prep, which initially operated middle schools in Boston, opened a high school in 2015 for those students to move on to, but it has had no permanent home. The 650 students are currently split between a former Catholic elementary school in Hyde Park, which houses the school’s 9th and 10th grades, and a Roxbury building five miles away that 11th and 12th graders attend.
The makeshift arrangements in cramped quarters leave students forced to eat lunch at their desks, and travel to a local YMCA for gym class. What’s more, there is none of the cohesion – and camaraderie and role-modeling from older students – of a regular high school experience.
In May 2018 — after months of preliminary public discussion of the project — the school submitted its first filing with the city to build a new school on the site of a shuttered Roslindale car repair shop. The site is zoned for a school, sits near two MBTA bus routes and a commuter rail stop, and is in a Boston neighborhood that has no high school.
If the plan seemed promising on paper, the stars have hardly aligned for Roxbury Prep.
Fierce neighborhood opposition quickly emerged, with two area civic groups and a slew of elected officials staking out ground against the school based on everything from traffic concerns to the small size of the project footprint and objections to charter schools — which are publicly funded but operated independently of local districts.
“I’m not surprised at the local opposition and some of the white supremacy that’s embedded in that critique,” said Shradha Patel, the high school’s founder and first principal. “If these were white wealthy kids in Newton, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”
Roxbury Prep enrolls 1,600 students between its three Boston middle schools and high school, 70 percent of whom come from low-income households. It boasts that 94 percent of the high school’s most recent graduating class matriculated at a four-year college.
Patel and other supporters say concerns about traffic or about the positioning of MBTA bus stops mask some residents’ fear of having hundreds of black and Hispanic high school students in their neighborhood.
Local civic leaders take strong exception to the charge.
“Our association and the other neighborhood groups in West Roxbury that oppose this project have tried not to respond to the racial charges that have been dropped in our laps since the very beginning,” said Ginny Gass, president of the Bellevue Hill Improvement Association. “It’s frankly irritating and annoying and frustrating to be called names, especially when it’s not true.”
Gass says the school would exacerbate already horrible traffic problems at a spot where a tangle of busy streets, including the West Roxbury Parkway and Centre Street, all meet. “For the last at least 10 years, that intersection has been a nightmare in the morning and in the afternoon at rush hour times,” she said.
Athena Yerganian, vice president of the civic group, said the school can’t provide students with the facilities they need on the “teeny, tiny postage stamp site” on Belgrade Ave. “The issue is not about the students, the issue is not about Roxbury Prep charter school,” she said. “The issue is the design of the building on 43,000 square feet of land.”
The two civic group leaders have joined with a group of other residents in raising legal questions about a deed restriction on the property and other issues they say should prevent the school project from going forward.
Both Gass and Yerganian said the neighborhood would welcome the charter school on a more appropriate parcel. Gass suggested the campus of the currently-shuttered, city-owned West Roxbury Education Complex on VFW Parkway as one more suitable location to build.
In response to neighborhood concerns, Roxbury Prep scaled back the school’s size from 860 to 562 students, and agreed to other changes, including prohibiting students, in almost all cases, from driving to the school (though the school says virtually no students own cars).
But the standoff has continued, with hundreds of comments supporting and opposing the project submitted to the city development agency.
Roxbury Prep says 85 percent of the submissions during the public comment period that ended in March 2019 were supportive. Meanwhile, the school says a review it conducted showed the average wait time for projects to come before the BPDA board after the close of public comments was 83 days over a recent two-year period. The Roxbury Prep proposal has been pending for more than 600 days.
“We are standing on the cusp of a social justice movement,” Patel said, calling the delay particularly unconscionable at a time of heightened attention to race and equity issues. “Either you’re standing on the right side or wrong side of justice. It’s not confusing to me.”
While the local state legislators have come out against the proposal, as has City Councilor Matt O’Malley, whose West Roxbury-Jamaica Plain district borders the site, City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who took office a year ago and whose district includes the Belgrade Avenue property, has voiced strong support for the project.
“The children in that school deserve to have facilities that meet the standard of learning we want for all of our kids,” said Arroyo. The objections of some who have expressed concerns about the school are “rooted in racism,” said Arroyo, who grew up in neighboring Hyde Park and is the first Latino to represent the district. “It’s not lost on me as a person of color, as the first person of color to hold this seat, who has seen some of that terminology used against my family when we first moved to the neighborhood.”
The project has gained support from several elected officials of color across the city, including City Councilor Lydia Edwards and state representatives Russell Holmes and Nika Elugardo, while other officials, including at-large city councilors Julia Mejia and Annissa Essaibi George, have said they don’t support the building plans but believe the school deserves to have its proposal come before the BPDA board for an up or down vote.
With the new year approaching, the controversy is now also threatening to spill over into the 2021 race for mayor.
City Councilor Michelle Wu, who launched her mayoral campaign in September, opposes the school proposal, and singled out its status as a charter school as a chief reason. “The fact that this is a charter school is significant for me,” said Wu.
Although charters operate independently of local school districts, Wu said the city shouldn’t approve a new charter high school building — which could be a draw for students — while Boston Public School facilities are in desperate need of upgrades. “The mayor’s been playing politics with this site for years, and that is a perfect example of the lack of comprehensive planning across the city,” she said.
Though Wu has slammed the BPDA review process for lacking transparency and public accountability — she called for abolition of the agency and a complete overhaul of city planning in a lengthy report issued last year – she balked at agreeing that the school proposal at least deserves a hearing before the agency’s board.
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who also announced a mayoral run in September, supports the building proposal and decried what she called “an us versus them narrative of public schools versus charter schools.” She said the controversy can’t be separated from the quest for racial justice and accused the Walsh administration of “standing in the way of due process” by not bringing the proposal forward for a final vote.
“I often tell the mayor, when it comes to controversial projects and issues of race and racism and equity, you can’t play the middle,” said Campbell.
But that’s where critics say Walsh has been standing, not wanting to alienate the school and its supporters or those residents opposed to the project in a politically active, high-voting corner of the city. The mayor, who has yet to officially declare his candidacy but is widely expected to seek a third term, has not taken a public position on the proposal.
Meanwhile, Roxbury Prep students say the development clash has been an eye-opening, and often dispiriting, civics lesson in how power is wielded.
“I’ve been hearing about a building since 9th grade,” said Jasiah Woodberry, a Roxbury Prep senior who hopes to study construction management at Wentworth Institute of Technology. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to understand that, when it comes to people of color, there’s not too much urgency when it comes to putting forth change,” said the African-American 18-year-old.
Tabreia Vann-Crump, also an African-American senior at the school, who has her eye on Bryn Mawr College, said the experience has dampened her view of elected officials. “Political people or people that are in politics — they say that education’s the key, education will open many doors,” she said. “But our voices aren’t really being heard or listened to,” she said of the quest for a new school.
Tuesday’s scheduled public hearing would have been the fourth public meeting on the proposal. It wasn’t clear why it was scheduled more than a year and half after the public comment period on the proposal ended. But almost as quickly as it emerged on the BPDA calendar, the hearing was called off.
“Please be advised that following discussions with the Roxbury Prep team, we are postponing the Article 80 Virtual Public Meeting scheduled for Tuesday, December 8th until further notice,” said an email from the BPDA to all those who had registered for Tuesday’s scheduled hearing on Zoom.
In a statement, Roxbury Prep suggested the postponement came because it is now considering other sites, including locations that might allow for the originally planned 860-student school.
“We are proud to have important community and elected official support for our desired Belgrade high school,” Barbara Martinez, a spokeswoman for the school, said of the Roslindale site. “In order to ensure our students have a permanent and world-class home, we are also doing some preliminary work to explore possible locations that would allow us to serve our full high school community.”
Neither the BPDA nor Roxbury Prep would provide further details, but sources familiar with the issue say one idea being given preliminary consideration is building a new high school in Roxbury as part of plans for a new campus for the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.
BFIT, as the private, two-year technical college is now known, has an agreement to sell its longtime home on Berkeley Street in the South End, and last fall the school acquired a 55,000-square-foot parcel on Harrison Avenue outside Nubian Square to build a new school facility.
The college has faced financial challenges in recent years, and in a virtual public meeting in late October, BFIT’s CEO, Aisha Francis, said the school will be seeking partners to locate on the Harrison Avenue site who would generate income for the college. A spokeswoman for the school declined to comment on any discussions that may have taken place with potential for-profit or nonprofit partners.
Should a viable alternate site for Roxbury Prep emerge it would no doubt be a welcome development for Walsh and the city, relieving them of having to make a call on the controversial Roslindale proposal.
Despite the questions raised by postponement of last week’s public hearing, Roxbury Prep says it is not throwing in the towel on the Roslindale site and will redouble efforts to press the city to approve its proposal if other options the school is now exploring don’t bear fruit.In November, the school released a video advocating for its Roslindale proposal, narrated by Vann-Crump, the Roxbury Prep senior hoping for a scholarship to Bryn Mawr. It urges the city to act on the application, and cites Walsh’s declaration earlier this year that Boston would treat racism as a public health crisis.
“Some people do not want us here,” Vann-Crump says in the video. “Why not? It’s zoned for a school. Why not our school? Maybe you don’t want students who look like us here. Since June, our elected officials have talked openly about systemic racism and its impact on our city. Talk is cheap, it’s time for action.”