ON a typical weekday morning in South Boston, school buses roar up the hill on G Street and stop next to a brick school building. Groups of students of all ethnic backgrounds, toting book bags and backpacks, emerge from the buses and walk toward the doors of South Boston High School.
Here at "Southie" High, students are bused into this predominantly white Irish neighborhood from different parts of the city. In recent weeks, the school has been the focus of national media attention after groups of black and white students threw rocks and bottles at one another in a racial brawl. The incident brought to mind an ugly period in Boston's history when the same South Boston neighborhood was the center of racial turmoil during court-ordered busing in the 1970s.
"It's a disgrace what happened. But I think it was a wake-up call," says South Boston neighborhood activist Ed Kennedy. "I think a lot of good will comes from this."
Indeed, now that things have quieted down, city leaders, school officials, and parents have time to reflect on some of the challenges facing this city's public education system.
Boston schools - like urban schools around the country - have their share of problems: high dropout rates, low test scores, violence, and a School Committee that is faulted for being disorganized and ineffective.
During his 9-1/2 years in City Hall, Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn has tried to address these issues, but has had limited success.
City leaders and political observers, nevertheless, credit Mr. Flynn with maintaining racial harmony in schools and neighborhoods, particularly in the aftermath of last month's melee in South Boston.
In the days following the incident, Flynn - a graduate of South Boston High himself - spent long hours meeting with school officials, neighborhood activists, and young people. In the end, high school students there resumed classes peacefully, without further incident.
But Flynn has not been as successful in other efforts regarding the city's schools. One of the mayor's most closely watched initiatives has been his new seven-member appointed School Committee. He created the appointed board to gain control over the education system and to end the ineffectiveness of the former politically influenced 13-member elected board.
Though it was a controversial idea when proposed, Flynn won Boston City Council and state legislative approval for the appointed committee in 1991.
But parents and community activists complained that the new mayor-appointed board was undemocratic. And today, observers agree that the idea never worked out the way it was envisioned. With blurred lines of accountability, critics say the system is as disorganized and ineffective as ever.
"It has not been a smooth operation at all," says Joseph Slavet, a senior associate at the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "It has been fraught with difficulties."
School Superintendent Lois Harrison-Jones, who took on her position almost two years ago, notes tensions between City Hall and the School Department over the appointed system.
"I don't think there had been any preparation for the change, and everybody had their own version of what to expect, which ended with nobody being happy," she says.
"Hopefully, we have learned something now, and perhaps we can do something different for the next administration," she adds.
Although some have faulted Dr. Harrison-Jones for initiating reforms too slowly, city leaders point fingers at Flynn for being too critical of her efforts. Chosen by the former elected school committee, Harrison-Jones came to Boston as the mayor was organizing the new appointed School Committee.
At-Large City Councilor John Nucci notes that Flynn, like those who came before him at City Hall, has had little success in tackling the Boston public education system.
"I think the administration always tried to separate itself from the School Committee and School Department and never really became very involved," says Mr. Nucci, who also formerly served as president of the Boston School Committee. "That's not a trait that has been unique to the Flynn administration. That's what has historically happened between mayors and the School Department."
Although Flynn acknowledges that the transition to an appointed School Committee has not been easy, he says the move helped take politics out of public education.
"There is nobody on the School Committee now that is running for political office," the mayor said in an interview with the Monitor. "Their only interest now is the education of the children. And that was a historic step forward, [but] not perfect. There was a lot of institutional opposition to that and there still is."
The mayor explains that the new school board has been able to make tough decisions and stand up to unions and the city's educational bureaucracy, something that an elected board would not easily do.
City leaders also cite the makeup of Boston's student
population. After Federal District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered that Boston schools be desegregated in 1974, many white Boston families fled to the suburbs.
Today, the student population is largely minority. With a total of 59,146 students, the racial breakdown in Boston schools is now 48 percent black, 23 percent Hispanic, 9 percent Asian, 20 percent white, and 0.41 percent American Indian. And with the exception of Boston's three special exam-entry schools, approximately 65 percent to 70 percent of Boston public-school students live in public housing, according to Flynn.
"How do kids in lower-income households - with the large proportion of them coming from single-parent families - learn? What is the secret of their learning and teaching? It is very elusive. We don't know a lot about this," Mr. Slavet says.
Despite the school system's problems, education leaders here are quick to point to progress they have made. Harrison-Jones says she is working on several reforms: decentralizing the system to give more authority to schools, incorporating a new multicultural curriculum, making improvements in vocational education, creating a new citywide chorus and orchestra, and implementing a comprehensive safety plan for the schools, among other things.
In addition, Harrison-Jones says she has brought the School Department back to fiscal stability.
Faced with a $20 million overrun in the School Department's budget last year, she ended the fiscal year with a $38,000 surplus, she says.