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South Boston residents dispute Boston Middle School Academy move

Posted by Cara Bayles  July 15, 2011 04:01 PM

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Next year, UP Academy will occupy the Gavin School, and its neighbors in South Boston are well aware of the in-district charter school’s plan to serve 500 middle school students with a unique curriculum and extended school days.

But last night, livid South Boston residents asked school administrators why they only learned two weeks ago that another school for youth with disciplinary problems would also take up residence in the school.

“We all knew about the UP and were happy about it,” said Brian Mahoney, a long time neighborhood activist. “This latest addition caught us unawares. It seemed kind of kept from the community.”

Yvonne Vest, the principal of the Boston Middle School Academy, and Almi Abeyta, asstistant academic superintendent for middle schools, could not answer questions about the decision to move the school.

“I didn’t know the community didn’t know,” said Vest.

Abeyta said she’d known for months about the plans to move the Middle School Academy from its current Dorchester location in the William Endicott Elementary School, but added that she couldn’t comment on why, because other officials had made the decision.

“Why aren’t they here?” the crowd that filled the Boys and Girls Club classroom asked in chorus on Thursday.

The decision was part of “Redesign and Reinvest,” a comprehensive overhaul of the city’s public school system that saw the district closing, merging or replacing 18 struggling schools. The UP Academy has replaced the Gavin, and will begin its five-year contract in the fall.

Middle School Academy is an alternative education for students with behavioral issues, who have “repeatedly violated the code of conduct,” according to Vest. She said that enrollment is capped at 60 (the school’s website indicates the capacity is 80), and added that enrollment numbers are very small at the beginning of the school year, but steadily grow as more students are referred from other area middle schools. Students stay at the academy for the remainder of the school year.

“We’re a short term school,” said Vest. “We really try to get through to our students, so they don’t make the same mistakes that they have in the past. And we try to make sure we keep it all inside the building.”

She tried to further assuage residents’ fears by touting success stories of students who went on to enroll in AP courses, win Gates scholarships, and matriculate to college. When pressed, she couldn’t recall an incident when police had been called into the school to deal with criminal behavior.

“I know it’s scary to hear that these are kids who have discipline issues and have been in trouble before. But they want to be in a safe neighborhood, too,” said Kelly Welch, a social worker at Middle School Academy, and a South Boston resident. “They have fears and concerns, too.”

Several residents, who professed to be “trouble makers” when they attended the Gavin, were concerned about the level of monitoring provided by the academy’s staff. Vest said that teachers call students' parents when they are missing from class, and will occasionally escort students toward the T at the end of the day, but that they don’t monitor the grounds for truants.

There was also concern for the children who would attend the Middle School. Unlike UP Academy students, the adolescents enrolled in the Middle School Academy will be given a T pass and won’t be bussed to school. Vest said she had campaigned for buses in the past, but students are too far flung and the school is too small.

That means the students, aged 11 to 16, will navigate Andrew Square Station, which saw the highest increase in crime last year, according to transit police. They’ll have to walk through Andrew Square, an area with some people with substance abuse issues, and then, residents pointed out, they'll have to walk through busy intersections on Dorchester Street, and past the Old Colony Housing Complex.

Suzanne Lee, a candidate vying for Bill Linehan’s District 2 city council seat, suggested that residents tell school officials they can either pay for a bus to and from Andrew Square, or find a new location. Linehan said he would be meeting with School Superintendent Carol Johnson today.

But for many at last night's meeting, the worst part of the plan to move Middle School Academy was the fact that city officials had not sought neighborhood input on the proposal.

“People in some downtown office made this decision for us. That’s been done before,” said Dan McCole, who recently proposed a popular plan to institute an arts center in the neighborhood’s old police station, but saw the city award the property to veterans’ housing instead.

“This community is open to anything,” said Bob Ferrara, who is also challenging Linehan in the fall. “Just meet with us, don’t dump it on us.”

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