Boston University's Attempt to Rescue A City's Schools Falters

Funding problems limit progress in Chelsea experiment, but rising test scores give hope

AS she walks through the clean, quiet hallways of Chelsea High School, principal Elsa Wasserman marvels, ``This is a miracle! There are no emergencies, no fights.'' There were plenty of both eight months ago when Dr. Wasserman was brought in as part of Boston University's well-publicized takeover of the school district. She developed new pass rules and had them enforced them with a vengeance.

But the quiet in the halls masks the chaos that may be developing as Boston University's bold management plan for the district meets a crumbling economy and an apathetic city.

In 1987, the university offered to manage the troubled school district for 10 years, from infant-care to adult-literacy programs. It aimed to make Chelsea a national model for urban education. In 1989, the experiment began.

If it was challenge Boston University (BU) officials wanted, they got it. Chelsea, which covers just 1.8 square miles, is a poor community that is home to a large number of immigrants. A majority of students do not speak English as their first language. The Chelsea school system has some of the highest dropout and teen-pregnancy rates in the state - and the lowest test scores.

The first two years of the BU experiment have not been easy. Local Hispanic groups and the Teachers Union filed suits charging that turning the reins of a public school district over to a private entity was unconstitutional. BU also was criticized for not drawing school employees or community groups into the process.

The deep foundation pockets that BU President John Silber hoped would pay for some of the extra programs were not as deep as expected. Instead of an expected $3 million, the university raised $2.4 million last year.

In another fund-raising attempt, BU has launched ``A Different September Foundation'' to raise money from individuals, corporations, and foundations to support educational reform, first at Chelsea, then around the country.

BU's relationship with the city of Chelsea has not turned out as well as hoped. Some observers say the city is letting BU pay its bills. Two years ago, Chelsea spent just 17 percent of its budget on the schools. The amount could drop to $11 million this year.

Voters turned down a tax-limit override that would have enabled the city to raise more money for schools.

``The toughness starts now,'' says Chelsea Superintendent of Schools Diana Lam. ``With Proposition 2-1/2, that certainly is devastating for us because we had already started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Chelsea's is the only urban school system in Massachusetts whose basic skills scores have gone up.''

Observers say the test for BU's continued involvement in Chelsea is stamina and money. Assistant BU Dean Ted Sharp wonders if Chelsea really wants to make it. The city is close to receiving $92 million to build new schools. But he says there's the possibility that because Chelsea would have to pay $4 million over 25 years, the city's voters might turn it down.

While sticky politics and threats of layoffs swirl outside, progress is being made at Chelsea High. The Scholastic Achievement Test scores went up 14 percent last year. RJR Nabisco Foundation gave Chelsea a $705,000 grant to start a new school-within-a-school for high school dropouts. The Chelsea Class of 1939 raised $11,000. Digital Equipment Corporation supplied employees as mentors. The Boston Foundation started a program that will teach every staff member, including custodians and secretaries, to be a mentor.

``It's one by one,'' says Wasserman. ``There's no magic.''

Crisshell Coffey is one success story. She entered ninth grade late because of some school mistakes as well as her own, and she was going to have to repeat the grade. But after she pleaded her case to Wasserman that it was partly the school's fault and wrote a contract, she was moved to 10th grade. Now she's on the honor roll.

``What I'm trying to do is find a spot for everyone,'' says Wasserman. Chelsea High has three schools-within-a-schools. At Voyager, 20 former dropouts aged 17 to 21 are working on individual projects, most of them at sites other than schools. In class, Shirley is reading ``I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings'' and deciding if she wants to do a book report or use the novel as a springboard into a research project on the Civil Rights movement.

Hector checks in with teacher Maggie Lodge, then dashes out to study Hispanic agencies in Chelsea for an interview project. He'll get social studies and language competencies credits.

Wasserman set up an off-site alternative school that teaches math and science through learning about the building trades. She hopes students will use their skills to help the elderly with home repairs. ``Other kids are asking to be in it,'' she says.

There's also a transition program for over-aged students in Grades 8 and 9.

Renaissance School takes a multi-disciplinary tack. Each semester, its 167 students take double-length English/social studies or math/science classes. In one class, a tall, imposing actress from the Roxbury Outreach Shakespeare Experience (ROSE), tries to pep up sluggish students rehearsing King Lear. ROSE is a Boston-based group that teaches minority students classics.

``King of France,'' commands Diane Beckett, ``get your script! Be prepared!'' Some of the students mumble their lines in barely understandable English. But the actress playing Cordelia is into it: Her eyes shine and her voice rings out.

Two bathrooms are being made over by art students who are covering up graffiti by painting murals with anti-drug and anti-smoking messages.

What the teachers like here at Chelsea High is the atmosphere of freedom.

``You get a lot of support if you want to try something new,'' says Ms. Lodge. ``There's no pressure to make it work right away.''

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