Boston University's Experiment
Unique program brings reforms; but teachers balk at attempts to tie raises to performance. RUNNING A SCHOOL DISTRICT
STANDING at the blackboard in a fifth-grade math class, new arrival Andr'e Smadana scribbles a division problem differently from the other students. Puzzled, they tell teacher Peggy Harrington that he should do it ``the right way.'' ``No, let him do it the Czech way,'' she says. ``He'll work it out.'' And, after much writing and erasing, he does - triumphantly.Skip to next paragraph
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Andr'e is from Czechoslovakia, but most of his classmates are Spanish-speaking, with various levels of English comprehension. What they have in common is that they are all good in math. Mixing them in the same classroom is part of a pilot program the Shurtleff School has started to break down the barriers between bilingual and monolingual learning.
Such experimentation is becoming the norm at Shurtleff and other schools here in Chelsea, a city hitherto known for problems in education. And behind the attempted revival is Boston University (BU), which last June became the first private university to manage a school district in the United States.
In 1987, when the Chelsea School Committee invited the university to manage the school system for 10 years, the district faced numerous challenges: low test scores, high dropout rates, teen pregnancy, low salaries for school employees. In addition, 65 percent of the district's 3,500 pupils don't speak English.
The powerhouse behind the plan, John Silber, who recently took leave from being president of BU to run for governor, has said Chelsea ``is the crucible for the American dream. If we can solve the problems in Chelsea, we can solve them ... anywhere.''
BU's plan calls for scrutinizing every aspect of the school system. Topping the management team's agenda are:
Individual learning plans for every student.
Year-round child care.
Placement of health clinic in every school.
A written curriculum (Chelsea does not have one now).
An extended year for teachers and administrators in order for them to spend more time on professional development.
Building new schools and modernizing facilities.
``This isn't business as usual - this is education reform,'' says Assistant Dean of Education Ted Sharp. ``How are we going to cut red tape and see what works?''
In the agreement, the university pays for new programs, while Chelsea pays for running the school. The city is paying only 17 percent of tax revenues toward education; nearby cities pay as much as 73 percent.
The university's budget for next year calls for a 16 percent increase in city spending, and this goal is supported by the mayor. This would boost the school system's current budget of $14 million by about $2 million, Dean Sharp estimates.
BU's ambitious plan has traveled a rocky road both before and after taking charge of the system last June. Teachers objected to a hard-hitting report BU issued on school conditions. There were city budget crises, a state economic downturn, and fund raising by the university got tougher as national foundations tightened purse strings. Chelsea Teachers Union was unhappy with changes in state law that the university obtained - such as gaining access to pupil and personnel records - and tried to block the plan.