WHEN recess ends at the old, red-brick Williams School in Chelsea, Mass., 3- and 4-year-old children file through a door under a colorfully painted sign where the word "entrance" is written in English, Spanish, Khmer, and Vietnamese.
The melting pot of youngsters, many of whom are bilingual or don't speak English, head into homerooms, where they spend the day learning English, listening to stories, using science or other educational materials, and playing.
This is the Pre-school Program of the Early Childhood Program, an effort designed to reach and teach children who often enter kindergarten or other grades unprepared to learn.
It's the centerpiece of one of the most ambitious educational reform projects in the United States. The project started three years ago when Boston University took on a 10-year management of the troubled Chelsea public schools. Chelsea, a city which crams 28,000 residents onto 1.8 square miles, lies across the harbor and Mystic River from Boston.
The partnership has been controversial from the beginning, when BU President John Silber offered the university's money and services to help prop up a struggling school system. During the 1988-89 school year, for example, only 24 percent of students took the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and the combined math/verbal score was only 664. Chelsea residents expressed resentment of BU's top-down management style and complained that they were excluded from the planning process. Funding problems, turnover of superi ntendents, and the 1991 bankruptcy of Chelsea, which forced it into receivership, got the partnership with BU off to a rocky start.
While most of the grim statistics that have marred the school system for years have not changed dramatically since 1989, and though funding is still tight, teachers, principals, and others say they are beginning to see small signs of progress.
"It's been more work than you can imagine," says Elsa Wasserman, Chelsea High School principal. "In year one and two I felt like Elsa the Enforcer. Now I feel like Elsa the Educator. I just can't get over how well it's going this year."
Ms. Wasserman contrasts then and now. When she took the job two years ago, students loitered in hallways, students and teachers worked with a shortage of old textbooks, and the curriculum was outdated.
This year, the halls are quiet. Some rooms have computers, and students have up-to-date textbooks. Attendance has increased. Many teachers have taken teacher-training workshops in their subject areas. BU faculty and Chelsea teachers are developing curriculum objectives.
"I've seen a real change in this school," says Lorraine Montes, who is beginning her sixth year as a high school student. "We have new teachers, new courses."
In the Pre-school Program, which operates from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., 390 kids enrolled this year, up from 135 last year. Although still too early to assess achievement levels of these kids, Judy Schickedanz, an early childhood consultant from BU, says: "We're hearing rumors that the kindergarten children this year are very well prepared."
Chelsea boasted of one of the best US school systems at the turn of the century. But it deteriorated after the city was dealt several blows, including devastating fires in 1908 and 1973 and the construction of the Tobin Bridge. The bridge links Boston to towns north, cuts the city in half, and has come to symbolize the community's demoralization. Middle-class residents moved out, taking the tax base with them. Schools eroded as no money was available to keep up school buildings, supply resources, or adeq uately pay teachers, many of whom left.
SINCE BU stepped in at the request of the Chelsea School Committee, fund-raising efforts have netted just over $5 million; BU has contributed nearly $2 million in expenses and services. This year's school budget, three-quarters of which is funded by the state, is almost $16 million.
Funds have helped establish the Pathway School, an alternative high school which holds classes from 2:30 to 9:00 for former dropouts; the Intergenerational Literacy Project, which teaches families to read; and full scholarships to BU for six Chelsea students so far. Teacher salaries have also increased.
BU identified 17 goals to meet during the partnership. These include improving test scores, revitalizing the school curriculum, increasing the number of high school graduates, and modernizing facilities.
A three-year progress report to the Massachusetts Legislature released early this month indicates some headway has been made toward each goal. But residents say the process has been too slow.
Administrators blame the lack of tangible results on Chelsea's fiscal collapse last year. The school budget was trimmed so that 50 of 302 teaching positions were eliminated, programs were cut, class sizes ballooned, and schools had to be reorganized.
"I've seen a lot of good starts that had to be put on hold as a result of Chelsea's fiscal crisis," says Carol Murphy, assistant superintendent.
Many parents and community members, however, voice what they feel is a broken record of concerns.
"BU pays a lot of lip service to community involvement, to parent involvement, but when it comes down to hard-core important decisions to be made, the community is not sitting at the table," says Marta Rosa, a member of the Chelsea School Committee. "I have a lot of issue with the way they set priorities, with their hiring policies. Here in the bilingual education programs they've hired people who didn't speak Spanish fluently."
Gladys Vega, who enrolled her daughter in the Early Childhood Program this year, says: "One of the things I'm concerned about is that we're putting all this money into early childhood education, and we're forgetting about the rest of these kids."
New superintendent John Gawrys, the third since 1989, says he is committed to stay. "We know we must collaborate much more closely with parents," he admits. Among his priorities are revitalizing the curriculum and building new schools.
School administrators say one constant challenge is accommodating non-English-speaking immigrants: 73 percent of students belong to minority groups.
Paul Clemente, chairman of the BU management team that oversees the partnership, shrugs off criticism that the effort is failing to produce results. "The project spent the first three years building a foundation for good schools," he says. "Everything is in place now to begin this reform project in earnest."