John W. McCormack Middle School has an old feel to it. Built and founded in 1967, the one-building school proudly proclaims its rules for students, as well as inspirational quotes, painted on the hallway walls. Directly across from Paul A. Dever Elementary School in Dorchester, the small site feels appropriate for younger students. The tan and blue color scheme complements a brickwork pattern that looks like it’s seen better days. In the main office, run by secretary Deborah Brazil, someone mentions that a hallway light that hasn’t worked for months has suddenly turned on. An outside door handle and weather strip hang loose in the rain. However, in the office, Principal Elvis Henriquez helps a student with a problem. The hallways are quiet, with the school’s approximately 350 students in class, and the vibe is cozy.
McCormack, however, is set to merge with high school Boston Community Leadership Academy as a new grade 7-12 school. Mayor Marty Walsh announced a 10-year initiative to revamp the Boston public school system in September 2015, called BuildBPS. Its main goals include cutting down on the number of school transitions students need to make, renovating or building new school buildings, and generally shifting the system to two models that are proven to work: grades K-6/7-12, and K-8/9-12. Essentially, this would merge some elementary schools with upper grade schools, while other lower grade schools would merge with high schools. The six remaining traditional middle schools (grades six through eight) will be phased out, either permanently closed or merged with other schools over the next ten years.
As for the traditional middle schools, BPS press secretary Dan O’Brien said struggling academics and smaller student populations have necessitated those schools closing. “There weren’t a lot of solid plans prior to last year, and now there are,” he said. A strategic plan early in 2020 should more clearly outline the next steps for BuildBPS.
Several teachers and parents have expressed apprehension over the planning, feeling that the district is simply telling them what to do when they want it done as opposed to involving them from the start. Is abolishing traditional middle schools outright even a good idea? There is also worry over how much of this plan is truly for the students’ benefit, as opposed to simply being for the sake of renovating buildings. The administration argues otherwise, explaining they are working towards a viable system for school transitions, but the confusion lingers. How much of this plan is really a good idea and has the students’ education in mind? Also, how will all this change affect the students’ academics, as well as special programs that benefit their educational experience?
McCormack’s hallways are full of students during passing period, and handmade signs adorn every teacher’s door. Eighth grade English Language Arts teacher Pamela Doiley’s classroom is large and welcoming. It’s pouring rain outside, but the bookcases that cover the back wall invite you to sit down and pick up a volume. The desks are set in tables for groups of four, and homework assignments for her individual classes are written on the whiteboard.
Eighth grade civics teacher Neema Avashia explains that when she and Doiley started at McCormack, 16 years ago, there were around 25 middle schools, and McCormack had a full building with 800 students. “We have a very committed staff. Lots of folks have been here a really long time. We have families who’ve been here-we’re on the fifth sibling!” she said with a laugh.
However, due to K-8 expansions, their population has shrunk and it’s been harder to fund programs. “We have learned to do more and more with less and less,” she said. “A lot of schools, when they get this small, they stop having things. We send kids to Costa Rica every year. We send kids to New York. We still try to keep a rich experience for kids.”
Doiley picked up the thread. “We have stayed here and committed to stay here so long [that] we know how to operate with each other, as well as individually. We know how to carve out experiences, we know what our kids need, we know our population, we’re able to morph as the school morphs.”
Last October, McCormack was set to close entirely, with students going to Excel High School, and with no plan for the staff. Excel didn’t have any of the special programs that McCormack students were used to, and was also in turnaround status with state supervision. The staff worried about straining Excel’s resources. “So it wasn’t a good plan, and so we fought it. And won is a weird word, because I don’t know that I would say we won. We were able to negotiate a better plan,” Avashia said.
McCormack is now set to be closed for two years of renovation, starting in 2021. The students will move to Washington Irving Middle School in Roslindale, and when the new building opens again in 2023, the school will merge with BCLA.
Avashia worries about the mergers and expansions that will create 7-12 schools. High school principals, she said, will hire staff without really knowing what middle school students need, as happened at New Mission High School, which turned into a “management disaster” as she put it.
“I think the superintendent, not wrongly, feels like she wants to have a handle on BuildBPS. What are the priorities here? She’s asking really good questions. I appreciate her questions. And she wants the time to answer the questions thoroughly,” Avashia said.
Current superintendent Dr. Brenda Cassellius is the third person to hold that position in the past four years. When Tommy Chang was chosen as superintendent in 2015, he and the mayor got along, a good sign for Walsh’s $1 billion initiative. However, when Chang resigned in 2018 after a lawsuit was raised over students’ immigration status and ICE, an interim superintendent, Laura Perille, was brought in. In October 2018, she announced the second phase of BuildBPS, dedicated to organizing specific proposals for schools. This past May, Cassellius was voted in by the Boston School Committee; Perille left the district in July. Cassellius intends to take a year to review the plan thoroughly in order to weave together the strands of a framework for a K-6/7-12 grade model.
O’Brien said of Perille’s year in the interim position, “One of her major charges was to get the BuildBPS project back on track because it had stalled, for lack of a better word. There were plans [and] a lot of them were discussed but didn’t really get off the ground.” However, a takeaway from her tenure that did work was facilitating the K-6/7-12 model.
Interim superintendent Perille also made the decision to close the West Roxbury Education Complex in June 2018, which comprised two high schools (West Roxbury Academy and Urban Science Academy). This incited major community backlash. During much of her year as superintendent, Perille facilitated outreach and school transitions for students. Cassellius is taking a slower route.
Monica Roberts, Chief of Student, Family, and Community Advancement, does much of the community engagement for the district. In terms of the proposed McCormack and BCLA merger, she said, “It would delay their process, but it would make sure that it’s aligned with what’s happening across the district for 7-12 expansion.”
Avashia is also anxious about the gentrification in Dorchester, where McCormack and Dever are located. “I think this land is a developer’s playground, and the question becomes: what do we value in this city?” She and Doiley are also wondering whether schools city-wide are neglected so that they can be torn down and remade into higher class buildings, such as elder housing (as is happening with the former William Barton Rogers Middle School), for the land’s value. The BuildBPS plan approximates that 65 percent of BPS schools were built before World War II. Avashia said, “There’s a lack of transparency that makes everybody feel suspicious about everything.”
Kris Grymonpre, a McCormack seventh and eighth grade science teacher, is taking everything day by day. He worries about the future and how teachers will continue to help students in the same ways they are used to. “The big concern is most of our kids are pretty local to our school. If we move to Roslindale, instead of walking to school, maybe they’re taking three different buses to get there, and that’s just not realistic that it’s going to be the same school community.”
“It’s frustrating on the one hand, because we see a lot of this being done to us, not considering the student voices or community voices,” said Grymonpre. “On the other hand, it’s really inspiring, because we get to see our kids stand up and have a voice, and make sure that their voices are listened to.”
BPS recently claimed McCormack’s school field in order to build a fieldhouse. “If they take this field over, we don’t really have a space for the kids to be outside,” explained Grymonpre. “For a lot of our kids, this is really the only time they spend outside. Our students have seen katydids [grasshoppers], with camouflage, which helps bring about natural selection. Being outside has got a good impact on the soul.” He worries that BPS won’t even move them back to McCormack after Irving, because of the lack of outdoor space.
Lauren Margharita, a Roslindale parent with children in BPS high schools, feels conflicted about the closing and merging of the traditional middle schools. Two of her children attended Irving Middle School for a year. However, she prefers the K-6/7-12 model, since that’s the model the exam schools use. Margharita is also the secretary for the BPS Citywide Parent Council, but spoke of her own personal experiences with the district. “Here we were coming into the school system hoping this would all get resolved, and it’s still 100 percent not resolved, and doesn’t seem to be resolved anytime soon. It’s such a relief to be through those middle school years and be settled, hopefully, in high school,” she said.
Margharita’s family experienced both models: K-6 and K-8. Two of her sons went through Irving just for the sixth grade Advanced Work Curriculum track, which feeds into the exam schools, in their case Boston Latin Academy. Her third child took the other track and attended a K-8 and now attends a 9-12 high school. She noted that some parents resent the fact that the elementary school expansion will be designed around the exam schools (grades 7-12), which Margharita acknowledges as a fair criticism. However, she understands the point of expanding the elementary schools in order to match the exam schools’ existing model.
The updated BuildBPS plan will begin elementary school expansion a year earlier than normal, with schools in East Boston as the place to start. Jessica Ridlen, director of communications for BPS, said about the new planning, “A lot of these decisions are based on what we’re hearing from the community, from families, from students who want to transition less, who want to have a guaranteed seat in sixth grade in the school that they’re in, and I think, just anecdotally from our latest announcement, that families are really excited that this is moving forward.”
Under BuildBPS, Irving Middle School is set to close for good in the next decade. “The Irving has always struggled to keep a good reputation here in Roslindale. There’s a lot of specialized programs in the school; there’s entire ELL [English Language Learners] strands,” Margharita explained. “Kids come in speaking no English, and they’ll learn English in about six months. It’s pretty astonishing, what some of them are quietly accomplishing. I feel like even though I’ve had 10 or 11 years in the system, it’s a mystery to me.”
With administrators arguing one way, and teachers and parents confused and worried, it’s difficult to know exactly how everything will turn out. Since the BuildBPS plan mainly deals with building renovation, it’s unclear how exactly the initiative will affect students and their education, not to mention special programs. The rapid turnover of superintendents, as well as the changes that the district has already experienced over the past decade, ensure that new change will be approached cautiously, as Cassellius’s current plan shows.
However, Neema Avashia, for one, will keep fighting for her school and her students. “In this city, if you’re a poor kid, if you’re a black or brown kid, your voice doesn’t matter unless you scream.” she said, adding that she didn’t like being so argumentative but would do it for the students. “I will tantrum all over social media and I will tantrum all over people’s faces because kids deserve their voices to be heard and if you don’t have the decency to come listen, then I will shame you. That’s what we’re left with.”