Boston University led successful reform; schools ponder what’s next


The Chelsea School District’s partnership with Boston University, which formally ended in June, may still represent a one-of-a-kind reform model. When the mayor and a school committee member asked for help in 1988, the university president assembled a team to study the ailing schools, but instead of suggesting specific improvements the team recommended a complete takeover. The two parties entered willingly into just such an agreement despite some backlash from the community.

“It was one of the first instances where a private university offered to take over management,” says Robert Rothman, a senior editor at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. “There have been partnerships before, but this was a real operating relationship with a contract. The school district really handed over the keys to a private institution.”

With only nine schools and about 5,500 students, Chelsea has a small school district that once had a record of solid performance but fell far below the state average after social and economic shifts in the 1970s and ’80s. Most of the district’s student population, which is 70 percent white, is low-income and more than 80 percent speak English as a second language, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Boston University took an unusually comprehensive approach to school reform that included community development and cooperation, an overhaul of the curriculum, facilities improvement and increased investment in teachers. The district opened a literacy center for adults in the community, held adult language classes for parents who spoke little to no English, and opened an early childhood center to jumpstart students’ reading skills pre-kindergarten. The university also partnered with various community organizations to help provide further services, including after-school intervention and social support for families with students at risk of dropping out.

The district saw gains overall using state standardized tests and its own data, but the dropout and graduation rates still lag behind the state average.

“We have certainly improved educational opportunity for the urban poor, for immigrants, for children of color. And yet, as much as we have made progress, and as much as we anticipate some good news in the next few weeks about continued progress, we still suffer setbacks,” wrote Superintendent Thomas Kingston in a welcome-back letter to the entire district in August. Kingston was superintendent for the last few years of the partnership, and the school committee chose to renew his contract through the transition back to district control.

What happens next is a big unknown—big changes don’t always stick, especially since superintendents tend to change every two to four years and their successors often try to implement new ideas, Rothman says. Without the consistency of Boston University at the helm and with the likelihood of a new superintendent taking over in three years, the challenge for Chelsea will be not only to maintain what gains it has achieved, but also, like many other cities, just to keep up.