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School Take-Over or Partnership

Immigrant community is riled as Boston's big University rides in to rescue bankrupt city's schools

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``From our experience in talking, not merely to political leaders of the Hispanic community and to spokesmen of other ethnic groups, but to literally hundreds of mothers and fathers ... we know that you hope your children will be able to enter the mainstream of American life, both economically and politically.... We know that most of you also share the opinion of a Hispanic parent in Texas, Ernesto Ortiz, who said, `My children go to school to learn Spanish so they can grow up to be busboys and waiters. I teach English at home so they can grow up to be doctors and lawyers,' '' Silber said.

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Members of Chelsea's Commission on Hispanic Affairs were not satisfied. ``When Silber called on Hispanic parents not to believe their leadership but to make up their own judgment, that was disrespect. You had three Latino leaders on that platform,'' says Juan Vega, a founding member of the commission now serving on the city's Board of Aldermen. ``His comment on busboys and waiters shows his attitude about poor people.''

But Chelsea has not always suffered from such divisions.

Old Chelsea regroups

In the 1940s, Chelsea boasted a quality school system. Chelsea High School graduates went on to Harvard and MIT across Boston's Inner Harbor. In 1950, construction of the Tobin Bridge cut through the city, breaking up established ethnic neighborhoods and leaving soot, noise, lead pollution, and an eroding tax base in its wake. Many families left the city, and a second wave of immigrants, largely Hispanic, Southeast Asian, and poor flooded into the neighborhoods they left behind.

Many longtime residents have a bridge story to tell: a family home moved to the edge of the city dump to make room for an on-ramp, a vegetable garden poisoned by lead paint, broken promises to reduce tolls for Chelsea residents. For many, the influx of new immigrants was an another example of unwelcome engineering - state social engineering - with consequences as drastic for life as they knew it as the steel girders of the bridge.

Powerful state bureaucrats had decided Chelsea would be poor by locating so many social service agencies and subsidized housing units in Chelsea, they said.

``In 1947 we were sending kids to the top colleges and universities in the country,'' says School Committee member Morris Siegal, who cast the deciding vote to bring BU to Chelsea. ``I saw the good times. We had tremendous parental interest. You'd go to PTA meetings and lines would extend down the corridor. But then there was a big change in demographics. Those who cared left the city for the suburbs and were replaced by a population beset by language difficulties and poverty. How could those people be interested in education when they had to be concerned with just surviving?''

The bridge and the surge of new immigrants fueled a growing conviction among many ``Old Chelsea'' residents that the crucial decisions affecting Chelsea are made outside the city and that ``the little guy'' doesn't count for much. Some city officials took the case further: The little guy wouldn't amount to much and maybe deserved a little something on the side.