Mattapan Fights to Save Elementary School

mattahuntDoes Boston have to close a school to save its children from suffering harm at the hands of the state?

That startling question was the focus of nearly four hours of passionate debate last week, pitting 100 parents and other supporters of the Mattahunt School against Superintendent Tommy Chang.

In the end, the School Committee voted to close the school at the end of June to head off state takeover, even after parents said they were willing to take the risk and would join with the School Committee in fighting for their school.

The Mattahunt students are 95 percent Black and Latino, and over 25 percent English language learners. Many come from Haiti and have already experienced trauma and instability. School Department officials said 17 of the students came to the Mattahunt from other schools that the department closed.

“You would never do this in a white community,” said Peggy Wiesenberg, a white parent who came to support the Mattahunt parents.

But Superintendent Chang said the state would take control of the school if the School Committee did not vote immediately to close it. He proposed transferring most of the students to other schools, and using the Mattahunt building to start an early childhood education center, which might then start adding grades and gradually build back to a full elementary school.

Parents put forward three alternative plans to keep the Mattahunt open as an elementary school and avoid disrupting the lives of its students, some of whom have already been through other school closings.

All sides agreed that state intervention would be a tragedy for the children. Speakers said the state takeover of the Dever and Holland schools had hurt the children in those schools, using terms like “disaster.” (Click HERE for a fact sheet on the national track record for state takeovers of public schools.)

The rapid series of events that culminated in last night’s vote started at the end of September when state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester told Supt. Chang that the Mattahunt was “under review” and would be taken over if he didn’t do something drastic.

Parents were told at a meeting on Nov. 1 that Chang was proposing closing the Mattahunt.

Over the next few days, they worked feverishly to come up with a plan to save their school, finally proposing three options to the School Committee. The options ranged from turning the Mattahunt into an “Innovation School” with considerable autonomy to chart its own course, to asking the state to let Chang pick a receiver for the school who would be responsible to Boston, not the state.

Parents said the last option would be similar to what the state accepted in an earlier near-takeover of the Dearborn School, but Chang said Chester would reject it.

The Mattahunt has been in “level 4” of the state’s accountability system for three years.

Parents and school committee members alike said the  accountability system “isn’t working for cities like Boston, and it isn’t working for communities of color,” as School Committee member Regina Robinson put it.

CPS supports legislation to block the school accountability system for three years to provide time for the state to come up with a better plan.

After the vote, Mattapan resident and activist Robert Jenkins reminded the committee of several other schools in the area that been shut down, scattering their students. “This has to stop in our neighborhood,” he said.

Barbara Fields, a leader of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts and of CPS, told the committee that, time after time, in major decisions about student assignment, transportation, other school closings, and now the Mattahunt, School Committee members have listened sympathetically to communities of color, and then dashed their hopes.

“People came out, and they felt, ‘The School Committee is hearing me!'” Fields said. But then the School Committee members, one after the other, voted consistently against what the community asked them to do, she said.

But the Mattahunt parents have not given up.

They are appealing to the community’s elected officials to stand with them. Next week, they  plan to go to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and ask the board to support a solution that doesn’t involve closing the school or turning it over to a charter operator like the ones that were given control of the Dever and Holland schools three years ago. — by Alain Jehlen