The Activism Efforts Behind the Blackstone Innovation School

Parents, students, and teachers from the Blackstone Innovation School used caution tape and banners to set up a crime scene March 7 at the Boston Public School Committee meeting. The signs read: “Your Budget Is A Crime” and “Fair Budget = A Future.”

“The current budget is a crime against the kids,” Blackstone parent Alexandra Olivero said at the demonstration. “They won’t have everything they need in order to learn, even the basics that are essential for them to follow their dreams.”

The complaints were not new. This was the second demonstration by advocates for an increased school budget, with those from the Blackstone the most vocal.

“Imagine a student feeling hopeless,” said fourth-grader Mykaela Cuello, peering up at the Boston Public School Committee. “This will also have a negative impact on our communities and larger society because we are not ready for the world. We will not have the education we need in order to achieve our goals,” Mykaela said. “We need your help so our school won’t fully break down. I say fully break down because some of our classrooms already don’t have walls and doors. Ceiling tile is already falling down.”

Blackstone Innovation School, located off Shawmut Avenue in Boston’s South End, faced what advocates say was a $512,000 budget shortfall under this budget. The shortfall, they said, meant the school was in danger of losing its guidance counselor and 10 teachers who work closely with special needs children. After a demonstration at a Jan. 30th  school committee meeting, the school was able to avoid cutting these positions with shifting of funds. However, it will cost them some partnerships with businesses and other community programs like City Year, St. Stephens Youth Program, and Generations Inc., all of which add extras for the struggling school.

In 2010, the Blackstone was named as one of the lowest-performing schools in Massachusetts. Test scores at the school fell well below the state average. According to a 2018 state report on the Blackstone, only 16 percent of the students passed standardized tests for English and Math.

This is well below the state average of 50 percent. When schools underperform, they can get extra financial support from the school district. Blackstone’s administration opted to go into “turnaround status,” which gave the school extra money for extra class time and community partnerships. When school performance improved a few years later, it entered “innovation status.” This means the school still received support, but the extra money for community partnerships, the same partnerships that advocates point to for that improvement, disappeared. Since the school is now entering “regular” status, it faces the same dilemma. The budget shortfall stems from the fact that teachers at the Blackstone, who have more competitive experience, are meant to get a pay raise once Boston school exits innovation status. The funds for the raises came from the school’s general budget.

“The challenge with the budget that we currently have is that all of the money we were currently spending for partnerships… had to be reabsorbed for the general budget to pay for the staff that we were going to lose,” said Jamel Adkins-Sharif, who has served as principal since 2017, not long after the school exited turn-around status and moved into innovation status.

Advocates for the Blackstone worry that without these nonprofit organizations having a presence at the school, the students will begin to face the same problems of school absenteeism, low test scores, and issues with English Language Learning students. Losing programs like Generations Inc, a program that provides reading buddies and promotes literacy, concerns just about everyone at the school.

Ariel Branz, a Senior Organizer with St. Stephens Youth Program, one of the volunteer organizations at the Blackstone, pointed out some of the correlations she noticed when programs were cut after the school exited turn-around status. “City Year provides teachers-in-training,” she said of one of the community partners. “They’re there every morning welcoming students into the building and they help with attendance. A few years back, the position that cut chronic absenteeism was cut. We then saw absenteeism rise by about 20 percent.”

Despite reporting these findings to Boston’s school committee, there were more cuts from City Year. “From last year to this year, they already cut City Year from 12 to seven core members, and if they cut even more of those, that’s just fewer adults in the school supporting students,” Ariel said.

An overwhelming majority of the students at the Blackstone fall under a “high-needs” category. This means they either live in poverty, have some sort of learning disability or classify as English Language Learning students. According to the Massachusetts State Report on the Blackstone, the high-needs population at the elementary school hit 89 percent in 2018, which is 13 percent higher than the school district average and 42 percent higher than the state average.

About half of the students were reported as English Language Learning. Under the proposed budget, some of the teachers who work directly with English Language Learners were expected to be cut. This concerned parents like Rafael Palanco, who immigrated to Boston from the Dominican Republic.

“My son was so scared,” she recalled about his first day at school in 2017. They had never lived in a place where English was the official language. Intimidated, her young son begged his mother not to leave him there.

Finally, Polanco recalls being reassured by a teacher who told her that everything would be fine. “She told me they had programs for English Learning students,” she said in Spanish to the committee, “It was as if she could read into my heart.”

With the reassurance, Rafael felt safe to leave her child at the Blackstone. After 25 minutes of English learning a day, her son was speaking English and Spanish perfectly. After some of the programs were cut during the transition from “turn-around” to “innovation status,” Ariel said that Rafael’s son has regressed to struggling with English again.

Another issue with the school budget is Blackstone’s infrastructure. This is because some of the classrooms at the Blackstone don’t even have walls or doors. Students have come to Wednesday night school committee meetings

“The physical plan needs a lot of work. It needs to be more conducive to the learners that we have,” Adkins-Sherif said.

(A classroom at the Blackstone Innovation School that is not surrounded by doors or walls. A classroom is right though the open space in the wall)

The Blackstone Innovation School was built in the 1970s as an open concept school, where the key component to a student’s success would be “collaboration.” While the idea has not been completely discredited in the realm of education, it has caused some learning issues and safety concerns among parents and advocates at the Blackstone. Only one other school that is open space in BPS: the John C. Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown.

“It’s a safety concern,” said Ariel. “Some of the district policies say that if there’s an intruder we should lock our doors from the inside. That’s almost laughable in a school where literally some of the classrooms don’t have doors.”

While soft-spoken, Ariel has planned most of the demonstrations at the school committee meetings. From painting signs to organizing bake sales to attempting to raise $20 million for BPS, she has been committed for the last couple of months to mobilizing in the name of getting the Blackstone, and other under-funded schools, some help. Along with her advocacy at school committee meetings, she also is active with helping St. Stephens run the school’s library, which is completely funded by the youth program since it is not allocated in the city’s school budget.

When it comes to the budget of the Blackstone, things get very complicated. A budget for a school depends on a number of things, especially the status. In Boston Public Schools, the bulk of a school’s budget comes from a process called Weighted Student Funding. This means the funding formula comes from property taxes and what each student’s individual needs are. At the Blackstone, there are 600 kids and 50 teachers. The funding formula takes into account a student’s status as having high needs, property tax in the Lower Roxbury, and the base of what the city spends on one child. While the Blackstone is located near the South End, it’s considered to be part of Lower Roxbury. According to the principal of the school, the property tax comes from Lower Roxbury. The average rent price for Roxbury is $2,636 according to Trulia, a real estate value website. The Back Bay, which is a two-block walk away from the Blackstone, is one of the most expensive places to live with average rent nearing $3,884 a month.

According to the city, Weighted Student Funding was meant to bring equity into schools and make sure that each school in the district would receive a budget tailored specifically for the case. Ariel, along with other advocates, doesn’t think the funding formula makes much sense. This is because of the formula’s lack of bare minimums, like guaranteeing a guidance counselor and a full-time nurse.

“We’re almost being forced into a formula that applies to everyone,” said Jamel, the principal, “so it may be equal. But it’s not 100 percent equitable.”

Complaints about the formula have caused issues in the past, and even in this current proposed budget. Under the Weighted Student Formula, East Boston High School lost over $1 million in allocations due to under-enrollment. While the Blackstone is not set to lose this much money under-enrollment may become an issue in the near future. With the school lacking walls & doors, even teachers at the Blackstone have said they probably would not enroll their children at the Blackstone. Unlike other school districts where students attend schools assigned by where they live, Boston Public Schools takes a different approach, which teachers have outlined as a concern for future funding if WSF continues.

While students are in kindergarten through eighth grade, parents are allowed a certain number of choices in which schools their kids attend. The system works similarly to a sorority rush. When a parent decides to enroll their child in BPS, they are allowed to choose between any school in a one-mile radius of their home. The district adds two top-performing schools on the list. If none of the schools within a one-mile radius are performing in the top tier, the list expands to schools outside of a one-mile radius.

“I’m a mom, and I probably would not put my child in school here,” said Crystal Collier, a resource teacher for the fifth grade at Blackstone. She has taught at the Blackstone for seven years and has been around for every budget fight in that time. “Every year, it’s been ‘oh, you can buy walls & doors,’ with the school committee. Mayor Walsh has been in our building so many times and seen the issues. It’s because they haven’t made black and brown kids a priority.”

On March 27, hundreds of students, teachers, and advocates gathered at the Blackstone for another demonstration about the budget. They were from many different schools like the Nathan Hale Elementary School and East Boston High School. Instead of a normal demonstration that would be set up at the school committee meeting, they did something different.

They marched from the Blackstone down to Dudley Square, where the committee has its regular meetings. The protest filled Shawmut Avenue all the way down to Dudley Square. At the frontline of the protest were students as young as ten-years-old, shouting chants like “Education is a right. That is why we have to fight.” They held the same signs they did at the Josiah Quincy School on March 7. Cars honked in support, and a number of City Councilors showed up in support of the schools.

Since the demonstrations, many elected officials have debated on their vote for the budget.

“I’m certainly not at a yes vote right now,” said Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards in regards to whether or not she would be voting in support of the budget, which has to pass the City Council and be approved by the mayor.

During this time, the protesters marched inside of the school committee and occupied the member’s seats to form “The People’s Committee.” It was made up of parents, members of St. Stephen’s Youth Program, Generation’s Incorporated, and other non-profit organizations.

“Time and time again the community has come before the school committee to share stories from our lives, and to implore them to sufficiently fund our schools,” said Suleika Soto, a Blackstone Parent. “It’s become clear that they either aren’t listening or they don’t care.”

In the past, the school committee unanimously agreed to pass the budget, despite repeated concerns about inequity. “We need an elected school committee!” shouted a patron in the crowd at the March 27 protest. The school committee is appointed by the mayor of Boston, and there are complaints that there are no checks and balances and that there is not much room for parents to be heard or considered.

“It would be nice if I could address you as people who are here to represent all students, but unfortunately, I know from past experience and from history that is never the case, and it’s certainly not true with this year’s budget,” Harry Weishman, a member of the Boston Education Alliance, said to the school committee during the public testimony period. “I refuse to acknowledge you as the Boston Public School Committee. This is mayor Walsh’s committee on education. And Mayor Walsh represents the interests of the wealthy.”

The frustrations with the appointed school committee piqued last year when the school committee voted on the closure of West Roxbury Academy and Urban Science Academy in June, then school committee member Regina Robinson said she could not support the mayor’s planned closures because it disrupted too many vulnerable students. While the rest of the school committee voted yes to the controversial plan, Robinson was the only member to vote no. She was not re-appointed in December, which is a rare move for the mayor. “After that vote, the mayor just did away with her. A lot of us think that is why,” said Woolfe.

Students came to the podium once again to plead with the school committee for a better budget, walls and doors, and to keep the community partners.

Despite the concerns, the school committee voted unanimously to approve the proposed budget. The budget now goes to City Council. While Councilor Lydia Edwards has expressed that she is not comfortable with supporting the proposed budget, Councilors Kim Janey and Andrea Campbell, who were both present at the hearing, said they want to have a hearing regarding the budget before it is voted on.

“I think we have some serious work to do in support of these schools,” Kim Janey said. She also testified before the committee regarding her concerns about the Blackstone since some of her constituents’ children are enrolled at the school. “I understand that this is a billion-dollar budget, and you’re trying to make good out of a bad situation. But those cuts need to be restored.”

Last year, only one city councilor did not support the school budget. That was Andrea Campbell, who now serves as the City Council President. The pushback from city council this year, according to parents, is different than it has been in the past.

However, not all was lost in the demonstrations. In a later meeting on April 3, the school committee shocked the public when the Interim Superintendent, Laura Perille, made an announcement that made the advocacy worth it. “We have a pending proposal for $5 million of investment to begin a plan and study of what it would take to put walls and doors into the Blackstone or reconfigure a number of the classrooms,” she said to the crowd.

While the funds are not finalized Adkins-Sherif said he feels good about the proposal.

“Even though the build-out isn’t until 2021, quite honestly, it still means there’s a recognition that the space here needs some renovation.” Despite the victory, Adkins-Sherif said he recognizes that more should be done. “This is a victory, but when you have a formula that is based on property tax, you’ll never see equity in the school system.”

Cake from the Blackstone’s celebration for the $5 million proposal for renovations at the Blackstone.