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Downtown parents: North End school a good start, but more options needed

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  March 26, 2013 03:14 PM

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Josh Reynolds for the Boston Globe/File 2012

The site of Mitt Romney’s campaign headquarters at 585 Commercial St. in the North End.

Downtown parents lauded Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s announcement that the city will create a school on the North End waterfront, but some say it only begins to answer the need for schools in the city’s center.

“It’s a first step,” said Beacon Hill resident Leanne Chase, 45, who has a 7-year-old daughter in private school. “I feel like we’ve been heard. I don’t think they’re taking it as seriously as we would like them to, but it’s a first step.”

Parents on Beacon Hill and in the Back Bay and Fenway — neighborhoods with no public elementary schools — praised the plan to convert 585 Commercial St. into a school, though it will sit less than a quarter-mile from the North End’s much-admired Eliot K-8 Innovation School.

But those parents said the new school’s 500 seats from kindergarten to eighth grade would be insufficient to serve the growing number of families raising children in downtown neighborhoods.

Brittany Bang, 29, said she loves living in the Back Bay and hopes her 16-month-old son can attend the new school. But it frustrates her that families have no guarantees.

“At the end of the day, public school education isn’t something that you say, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope I get it.’ It’s a right of kids to have that,” she said. “The possibility that not every child gets a seat is mind-blowing.”

Bang worries about sending her son to kindergarten three miles through downtown and wishes there were a public school closer to home. She has joined a push from downtown parents to create public schools in neighborhoods where none have existed for decades, a movement that peaked a decade ago but was re-energized by the School Department’s public effort to overhaul its assignment system.

Bruce Kiernan, a Beacon Hill father of two, got involved in Downtown Schools for Boston as the group coalesced last fall. Kiernan said the group knows one school is not enough, and he thinks city officials know it, too.

“The need is going to get even larger, and we have heard from a lot of people in the Downtown Crossing area that are interested in a public school,” Kiernan said.

Kiernan said a committee from Downtown Schools had searched for potential sites and found few options in these densely developed neighborhoods. But he hopes the city’s effort will continue, and officials will think creatively about potential sites, perhaps including a school in a large development project.

“If [the revitalization of] the Seaport area can happen, a school can happen,” Kiernan said.

Martha Pierce, Menino’s education adviser, said the city conducted an exhaustive search, and the Commercial Street building was the best site it found. It offers space for the K-8 school downtown parents said they wanted, while also providing access to playing fields, a skating rink, and the HarborWalk, she said.

“This opportunity came along, and it was too good to pass up,” she said.

Pierce said the city would monitor downtown population growth and keep an open mind about further expansion.

Parents also wondered how quickly the school will reach capacity after its 2016 opening and who would have access to it.

Lee McGuire, a School Department spokesman, said the new school still must be approved by the City Council and School Committee, and many details remain unsettled.

McGuire said it is unclear whether the school will immediately serve kindergarten through eighth grade or open with fewer grades and expand until all are filled, and it is too early to say which neighborhoods the school would serve under a new assignment plan approved by the School Committee on March 13.

Because that plan guarantees every child access to at least two high-quality schools, McGuire said, families as far away as the Fenway could have access to the new school, but that will depend on capacity and rankings of other schools.

McGuire said the School Department would respond to the needs of families, but not necessarily by creating new schools.

“The new student assignment plan requires us to place classrooms closer to where families actually live,” McGuire said, but that could mean expanding existing schools in nearby areas, he said.

City Councilor Michael P. Ross represents the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, the West End, and the Fenway and has worked with residents agitating for new public schools. He declared this school a major victory for those families but said he would continue working to create more access.

“We’re going to need additional schools, not just in downtown neighborhoods but throughout the city,” Ross said.

Ross said he was not disappointed that the North End building was selected, because its size would allow it to serve more families than any available site in the Back Bay or Beacon Hill. And its creation could free up space in downtown schools such as the Eliot School and Josiah Quincy School.

Ross said he would work to speed the opening of the new school, pushing for modular classrooms in the parking lot of the Commercial Street building so it could begin classes earlier than the fall 2016 start date Menino announced.

“People are not looking to wait two or three years,” Ross said. “They’re looking to move now.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow the North End on Twitter: @YourNorthEnd.

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