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District to vet 2 pilot school plans

Governor aims to expand program

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / July 11, 2008

The Boston School Committee will soon weigh proposals to open two new pilot schools, reinvigorating a more than decade-old Boston school program that Governor Deval Patrick is using as a model for statewide improvements.

The leaders of the two high schools would be able to exercise greater control over budget, staffing, curriculum, and governance, while working under fewer restraints from teachers unions.

Pilot schools, along with the governor's proposed readiness schools, are similar to charter schools, except that charter schools function as independent school districts, while pilot and readiness schools are, or would be, overseen by local school committees. Patrick recently proposed creating 40 readiness schools across the state, drawing upon the pilot school model.

Boston's two proposed schools, Harbor Pilot High School and Mary Lyon Pilot High School, draw on the popularity of two lower-grade schools, one of which is a pilot school, Harbor School in Dorchester. The other school is Mary Lyon K-8 School in Brighton. Collectively, the two new schools would serve about 600 students.

The proposals are part of a broader effort by Superintendent Carol Johnson, the School Committee, and the Boston Foundation to expand the number of pilot schools from 20 to at least 27 by next year, as school leaders try to create more options in the district. There are about 18 other pilot schools in various planning stages, but most must still clear the hurdle of winning approval from the teachers union.

Last year, a Boston Foundation study said pilot school students, on average, have higher state standardized test scores and graduation rates than the city's traditional schools.

Elizabeth Reilinger, the School Committee chairwoman, said the board would probably start considering the Harbor and Mary Lyon high school proposals at a meeting in September. She has not yet seen the proposals, but said they tend to be well-vetted by a steering committee before reaching the board.

"I think there will be positive inclinations towards these proposals," Reilinger said, because they would be extensions of already successful schools in the district.

Paul Grogan, Boston Foundation's president and chief executive officer, urged the School Committee to approve the two proposed pilot schools. He said the schools are essential to keep students in the system and to attract new students, which would have a positive effect on the amount the city receives in state aid.

Grogan said the district has been too slow to open pilot schools, but blamed the pace on the Boston Teachers Union. The union, he said, scuttled an effort two years ago to convert the John F. Kennedy School in Jamaica Plain into a pilot school and nearly stopped last year's conversion of Thomas Gardner Elementary in Allston, which was the last pilot school to open. Pilot schools can either be created from scratch or by converting an existing school, a process that requires at least two-thirds approval from teachers at that school.

"It is meager progress and far less than what it should be," Grogan said. "If the union was even neutral on pilot schools as opposed to being as negative, as they have been, we would have many more."

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, declined to comment.

Johnson, who invited the union to cohost an informational meeting for teachers on pilot schools in January, said in a written statement that she expects the pilot school planning process to accelerate in the fall.

"We will continue to encourage and support these schools to ensure that Boston expands its network of pilot schools - new and converted - to offer families an even greater range of choice for their children's education," Johnson said.

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