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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City hall sank into a culture of patronage, intimidation, incompetence, and corruption. The city's last three mayors were convicted of corruption or lying to a grand jury following a federal investigation into public corruption in Chelsea. City politics excluded the new immigrants, and anyone else who opposed the system.Skip to next paragraph
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Chelsea's new immigrants felt this exclusion keenly. ``This community was managed by a city government that wasn't representing them in any way,'' says Leticia Ortiz, who was elected to the Board of Aldermen last November. ``They had no voice in the government. Hold a rally or get a permit for anything and you would be labeled a troublemaker.'' They generally ``feared to do much of anything.''
Boston University officials stepped into this environment with a clear conviction of what they wanted and an apparent contempt for what they found. In the full glare of television cameras, Silber pledged the resources of a great university to tackle what he described as ``institutionalized child neglect.''
The remark sparked local protests, especially from Chelsea teachers. ``There was an unnatural fear triggered by Dr. Silber's remark,'' Mr. Siegal says. ``But it's true based on the lack of facilities in the schools: boilers that failed in the dead of winter, windows that wouldn't open, chimneys that fell in.... I was part of the administrative staff that was just spinning its wheels. It's only the dedication of our teachers that kept the system from collapsing.''
When BU took over Chelsea's schools, the city was spending only 17 percent of its budget on education. Other Massachusetts cities were spending an average of 52 percent. Most city officials sent their own children to private schools. Two-thirds of public school students spoke a language other than English at home.
BU's strategy in Chelsea, outlined in a 1988 report by the BU School of Management, emphasized early childhood education. Silber is one of the founders of the Head Start program and remains convinced that ensuring that children begin school ``ready to learn'' is essential. He was also an outspoken critic of educational ``fads,'' such as multiculturalism. The report devoted only a few paragraphs to bilingual education.
There are few shades of gray in how BU officials discuss their educational vision. ``We are committed to the view that English is the main language of the country. BU will not compromise that commitment,'' says Edwin Delattre, dean of the School of Education at BU and a key player in the partnership. ``Some people in Chelsea told me that you've got to be this color, this ethnic background to teach my child. They've got the weight of history against them.''
But BU officials insist that a refusal to agree (or ``pander'') does not indicate a refusal to listen. ``BU officials met with hundreds of parents,'' says Peter Greer, then dean of the School of Education. ``I went into homes. We learned many things.''
He dates BU's fallout with the Commission on Hispanic Affairs to a meeting on April 6, 1989. ``Talking points,'' prepared for the commission by Roger Rice, a Massachusetts attorney active in national litigation for bilingual education, included monthly meetings with the commission, commitment to reach consensus with a parent advisory committee made up of an ethnic mix reflecting the Chelsea public schools (then 50 percent Hispanic), and an agreement to direct 25 percent of all new money raised for the project to community-based organizations.
``These were presented as demands ... if you don't agree with this, we will oppose you,'' says Michael Rosen, associate general counsel for BU. ``This was inappropriate. We weren't negotiating. We were interested in hearing their concerns and happy to alleviate them if we could.''