CHELSEA, Mass., is one of those struggling, urban backwaters where new immigrants try to get a toehold on the American dream and children quickly find more interesting things to do than pay attention in class - or even go to class. The city's schools, as one might expect, are in constant crisis - short of money, lacking modern buildings, and demoralized by a devastating drop-out rate.
But civic spirit lives in Chelsea, and it impelled city fathers to approach nearby Boston University about taking on management of the local educational system. BU president John Silber was glad to oblige. In the past, he'd suggested a similar arrangement with Boston's schools.
What's now emerging is an unprecedented project whereby BU will assume major control over Chelsea schools for 10 years. The university's educational wizards will initiate new academic programs, revamp administration, and even oversee the building of new schools. It will be an expensive job, of course, and city and college folk alike are counting on BU's ability to attract foundation, corporate, and government funds.
Will it work? Can this sort of whole-hog involvement of higher education with public elementary and secondary education do what's rarely been done before: truly turn around a decaying urban school district.
The skeptics are numerous, and they make good points. The very foundation of public education in the United States is local control. Parents, teachers, and administrators at the local level have a direct say in the running of schools. Without that kind of grass-roots involvement, schools wilt.
According to teachers interviewed in the Monitor's article on the Chelsea experiment, that's just what is missing in their community - and, it might be added, in many others where the social fabric has worn thin.
Outsiders moving in to revive the schools will have to somehow spark community participation. The BU plan seems to recognize this. It includes programs that engage the whole family - language training for the city's many Asian and Hispanic parents, nutritional services for infants, a big emphasis on getting pre-schoolers ready for the classroom.
A key to the success of this undertaking, clearly, will be good relations between the BU planners and Chelsea's present corps of teachers. The university hopes to significantly raise teacher salaries. Just as important will be a spirit of respect and collaboration between the university experts and the people with expertise at the local, classroom level. The children, too, will respond to that kind of teamwork.
Boston University's project in Chelsea stretches the idea of interaction between colleges and neighboring communities. Other university/city school collaborations, such as Yale and New Haven, Conn., have proven fruitful. But none have gone so far as actual management of local schools.
Educators and interested citizens from all over the US will be watching to see what comes of the experiment in Chelsea.