NOT to put too fine a point on it, Chelsea's crumbling school system has a certain symbolic connection to The Bridge. The green steel Mystic-Tobin Bridge sends suburban commuters heading to Boston rumbling over the heads of Chelsea residents. The bridge divides tiny Chelsea, and residents say it has contributed to the deterioration of this poorest city in the commonwealth. On the brink of bankruptcy, the city has a declining economic base, sparse affordable housing, drug and alcohol abuse, and a high illiteracy rate. Its students (59 percent are linguistic minorities) have the highest teen pregnancy rate, the highest dropout rate, and some of the lowest test scores in the state.
But Chelsea's ailing schools may soon find some dramatic help coming over that old double-decker span.
In an arrangement that is the first of its kind in the country, a small army from Boston University is poised to come over and manage the Chelsea public school system.
It all started with Andrew Quigley, a member of the city school committee, who was alarmed at the situation. ``We have just been unable to provide the educational opportunity for the children of Chelsea that they have in other communities,'' says Mr. Quigley, publisher of the Chelsea Record.
``I've been on the board for 30 years,'' he says, ``and there is nothing more depressing than to see the hopeful faces of little third- or fourth-graders, knowing full well that the future holds for them either the welfare rolls, or, more regretfully, the criminal-justice system.''
In 1985, Quigley decided to take action. He suggested to Boston University president John Silber that Chelsea hire the university to manage this 3,300-pupil school system. Dr. Silber had previously offered to manage Boston's schools, but had been turned down. He accepted Chelsea's offer with alacrity.
Under the new plan, Boston University over the next decade would set up an astonishing array of programs dealing with every facet of education: among other things, extensive early-childhood programs, before- and after-school programs, programs for teen mothers, adult literacy classes, and individual learning plans for each student. A mentor program would bring together ``male teachers and children who come from families with no fathers, so there will be someone to track their progress over 12 years,'' Silber said in an interview.
Teachers will get state-of-the-art instructional materials, more aides, and higher salaries, which now range from $18,000 to $30,000. A new high school and elementary school are also planned.
To pay for all this, the study recommends that the present school budget of $16 million be increased $2 million the first year, and up to $22 million in five years, to be raised from federal, state, and corporate sources.
Peter R. Greer, new dean of the school of education at Boston University and head of the Chelsea project, is excited about what the university can offer. ``We've had offers from the School of Law to do things in Chelsea. The School of Dentistry is going to offer all kinds of help; the School of Health is offering occupational and physical therapy; the College of Liberal Arts is offering some of their faculty in terms of staff development in how to teach moral literacy.''
The national publicity has brought offers of help from many quarters. The National Historic Trust in Washington wants to help students learn the history of their own town; a publishing company wants to do a monthly nationwide newsletter on the Chelsea project; computer companies have offered equipment.
All of these plans are just that for the moment, because state legislation is needed to make the arrangement legal. Rather than put the project on hold until the legislation is voted on in November, however, Boston University in the interim will serve in an advisory capacity.
In addition, BU and the school committee are still negotiating the contract. Hammering out a balance of authority between the two in this previously uncharted territory has been a delicate procedure. Originally the plan called for an executive committee to be composed of two members of the school committee and three members of the university. But Chelsea wanted more power: The ratio was changed to seven school committee members and three from the university.
The academic community has expressed skepticism at the idea of a private university managing a public school district. Silber's answer is from Shakespeare's ``Henry V'': ```Get into the fray or quit the field.'
``I think it's the purpose of the university to serve the community,'' Silber says. ``It seems an opportunity to make ourselves extremely useful.''
In Chelsea, the plan is being met with mixed reactions.
``I'm in favor of it, economically,'' says Patricia Kagan, a remedial reading teacher. ``If they can find the money that we in a million years couldn't get, that's great. We really need some help.''
``[The contract] is probably one of the most Draconian documents that's ever been written,'' says Donald Menzies, president of the Chelsea teachers' union. ``Basically, they propose to take over, as far as we can see, every single right and responsibility of the school committee.''
BU spent nine months studying the situation and drafted a 300-page, federal- and state-funded, $250,000 report. ``There's nothing in that report,'' Mr. Menzies continues, ``for all that work and all that money, that really gets to the heart of changing that system.'' He would like to see a system that gives teachers more authority, and creates two career tracks, one for teachers and one for administrators. The conventional pattern of the one-career ladder, he says, lures teachers toward the higher-paying administrative jobs. BU's plan has one track.
Teachers and administrators complain that BU did not solicit their ideas. Chris Allen, the project director, disagrees. ``We asked them for a lot of input; we communicated more with those teachers than anyone could reasonably expect. The one thing we didn't do was ask their recommendations. We were hired to do an objective analysis of what we thought the strengths and weaknesses were. That's what's understood to be an objective, professional study.''
Teachers say many of the ideas that Boston University has come up with in its study are not new. ``Item for item, these are the very things we've been sitting around the teachers room and saying we've needed,'' says Mrs. Kagan. The university's plan to have greater involvement by parents is one thing Chelsea teachers say they've been trying to do for years, without much success. ``There almost isn't a PTA,'' says Kagan. ``I saw one parent all year. ... This is a poor district. They're survivors. Going to see how Joe or Jos'e is doing in school isn't a priority. But if we don't get these families in, it's a lost cause.''
But Dean Greer, a no-nonsense former administrator of Portland, Maine, schools, who recently left the federal Education Department, is not impressed with such ``we tried'' answers. ``No more `We can't do it.' No more `It can't be done because the students have such bad home lives.' I believe in willing, not wishing.''
Yet he has a few wishes himself.
``Educators have fantasies,'' says Greer. ``Mine is, a teacher is asked, `Where do you teach?' `I teach in Chelsea.' And it draws a `Wow!' Well, I'm going to try.''