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.

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.

But the school reforms, like the digging of the Panama Canal, went forward slowly. Many eyes are watching the project: the Governor's Oversight Panel, an Executive Advisory Committee (a host of special-interest groups), and the Chelsea School Committee.

Teachers initially were worried that BU would be breathing down their necks. But the university has come in with a gentler hand than anticipated.

Part of that is because of acknowledged mistakes on BU's part.

In a candid lecture recently, dean of education and director of the project Peter Greer admitted that not understanding how the community operates as well as not giving teachers credit for the good they had accomplished, resulted in slower progress.

Cathy O'Rourke, who teaches fifth-grade science at Shurtleff, is in favor of BU's reforms.

``In the first year you had people so skeptical, watching. Restructuring will take awhile. These small successes hopefully will lead to people believing that there will be one big successful system.''

Others are still concerned.

``There's a committee for every letter of the alphabet,'' says Donald Menzies, former head of the Chelsea Teachers Union and the high school band teacher. ``It's an aimless game of bumper pool. They're trying to look good so we'll understand they're sincere in trying to fix things up.''

Another complaint is over pay. The teachers union voted down a new contract recently because portions of raises will be tied to performance and because raises are not retroactive. The contract, approved unanimously by union negotiators, offered a 26 percent raise over the next three years.

While teachers and guidance counselors still do not have phones, and the physical plant is unchanged, BU is shaping the course of Chelsea in visible and invisible ways. Teachers get to take one-week mini-sabbaticals to see model programs in other elementary schools around the city. The university is offering the talents of several of its schools, including public health and social work. Graduate students come in as teachers' aides.

Mrs. Harrington's multilingual instruction in math is one example of the kind of fresh ideas fostered by the university's involvement. Harrington works smoothly back and forth between Spanish and English, knowing which children need more support in Spanish. The children work in groups, sometimes solving the problems together in Spanish, then giving answers in English.

This project is the work of Maria Brisk, an associate professor of education and coordinator of the bilingual education program at Boston University. ``This cooperative style is being pushed these days, and there's research to back it up. It's a good way of getting kids of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds to work together,'' Ms. Brisk says.

Harrington says that Spanish-speaking children sometimes turn their backs on their first language because it's ``not cool.'' But having an Anglo teacher speak Spanish in the class allows them to accept it and not lose their culture.

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