School Take-Over or Partnership

Immigrant community is riled as Boston's big University rides in to rescue bankrupt city's schools

IT was a great day for Chelsea.

A mound of dirt stretched out in front of a platform groaning with dignitaries, each waiting to heft a symbolic shovel or to be photographed with a commemorative plaque marking groundbreaking for seven new school buildings, the first schools to be built in the city since 1909.

Although state funds had been available since World War II to help communities build schools, Chelsea's Board of Aldermen had never asked for them. Chelsea was the only one of 351 Massachusetts cities and towns that had not.

It should have been a great day for Boston University President John Silber, the keynote speaker at the June 26 groundbreaking ceremony. His university accepted a call to manage the failing school system five years ago. Since then, it had raised $4.6 million to support Chelsea schools, increased teachers' salaries 29 percent, reduced the high school dropout rate 60 percent, ensured that 80 percent of the city's three- and four-year-olds had access to early childhood education, and now celebrated the end of a 40-year struggle in the city to build new schools.

And yet, the BU president spent the heart of his speech answering the criticism that won't go away: that Boston University can't talk to Hispanics.

The dispute between BU and the independent Commission on Hispanic Affairs plays out in news reports as a disconnect between BU and the Hispanic community of Chelsea, as a clash of personalities, political styles, or ideologies.

There is a partial truth in each of these explanations. But the roots of this conflict run deeper and touch what it means to bring voices that have been silent into the political life of a community.

Hours after BU signed its contract to manage city schools in 1989, the commission sued to challenge the constitutionality of the agreement. It also appealed to then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) to establish an oversight panel to monitor the openness of decisionmaking and public access in the BU/Chelsea partnership. A request to the state Board of Education for mediation is pending.

``This wasn't a partnership, it was a takeover,'' insists commission member Angel (Tito) Rosa. ``They haven't taken the time to get good input from parents.''

BU officials reject the charge that they have failed to consult or to listen. ``The issues here are not complicated,'' says Doug Sears, chairman of the Boston University Management Team for Chelsea. ``Boston University has, in essence, been criticized for failing to find common ground with a private advocacy group that has made clear its goal of driving the university from Chelsea.''

Five days before the groundbreaking, the state-mandated Chelsea Oversight Panel reported to the Board of Education that BU had failed to ``include all elements of the community as partners in the endeavor.'' Panel chairman Irwin Blumer repeated a charge he made in a June 16 article in Education Week: ``From the first year, one of the major problems has been the BU Management Team's problem in talking with people of color, people who are poor, and people who don't speak English as a first language.''

Prime example: relations between BU and the Chelsea Commission on Hispanic Affairs ``seem to be at an all-time low,'' the report said.

BU President Silber was out of town when the state board heard these charges, but they clearly influenced his speech. After thanking politicians, officials, and committees, Silber segued into Spanish to talk directly to what he termed ``one of the most important sectors of the Chelsea community, one to whom we have listened with care and whose concerns are foremost in our minds - the mothers and fathers of the children whose native language is not English, and especially to the Hispanic parents.'' He had rehearsed this part of the speech all week. Today was his best reading.

``From our experience in talking, not merely to political leaders of the Hispanic community and to spokesmen of other ethnic groups, but to literally hundreds of mothers and fathers ... we know that you hope your children will be able to enter the mainstream of American life, both economically and politically.... We know that most of you also share the opinion of a Hispanic parent in Texas, Ernesto Ortiz, who said, `My children go to school to learn Spanish so they can grow up to be busboys and waiters. I teach English at home so they can grow up to be doctors and lawyers,' '' Silber said.

Members of Chelsea's Commission on Hispanic Affairs were not satisfied. ``When Silber called on Hispanic parents not to believe their leadership but to make up their own judgment, that was disrespect. You had three Latino leaders on that platform,'' says Juan Vega, a founding member of the commission now serving on the city's Board of Aldermen. ``His comment on busboys and waiters shows his attitude about poor people.''

But Chelsea has not always suffered from such divisions.

Old Chelsea regroups

In the 1940s, Chelsea boasted a quality school system. Chelsea High School graduates went on to Harvard and MIT across Boston's Inner Harbor. In 1950, construction of the Tobin Bridge cut through the city, breaking up established ethnic neighborhoods and leaving soot, noise, lead pollution, and an eroding tax base in its wake. Many families left the city, and a second wave of immigrants, largely Hispanic, Southeast Asian, and poor flooded into the neighborhoods they left behind.

Many longtime residents have a bridge story to tell: a family home moved to the edge of the city dump to make room for an on-ramp, a vegetable garden poisoned by lead paint, broken promises to reduce tolls for Chelsea residents. For many, the influx of new immigrants was an another example of unwelcome engineering - state social engineering - with consequences as drastic for life as they knew it as the steel girders of the bridge.

Powerful state bureaucrats had decided Chelsea would be poor by locating so many social service agencies and subsidized housing units in Chelsea, they said.

``In 1947 we were sending kids to the top colleges and universities in the country,'' says School Committee member Morris Siegal, who cast the deciding vote to bring BU to Chelsea. ``I saw the good times. We had tremendous parental interest. You'd go to PTA meetings and lines would extend down the corridor. But then there was a big change in demographics. Those who cared left the city for the suburbs and were replaced by a population beset by language difficulties and poverty. How could those people be interested in education when they had to be concerned with just surviving?''

The bridge and the surge of new immigrants fueled a growing conviction among many ``Old Chelsea'' residents that the crucial decisions affecting Chelsea are made outside the city and that ``the little guy'' doesn't count for much. Some city officials took the case further: The little guy wouldn't amount to much and maybe deserved a little something on the side.

City hall sank into a culture of patronage, intimidation, incompetence, and corruption. The city's last three mayors were convicted of corruption or lying to a grand jury following a federal investigation into public corruption in Chelsea. City politics excluded the new immigrants, and anyone else who opposed the system.

Chelsea's new immigrants felt this exclusion keenly. ``This community was managed by a city government that wasn't representing them in any way,'' says Leticia Ortiz, who was elected to the Board of Aldermen last November. ``They had no voice in the government. Hold a rally or get a permit for anything and you would be labeled a troublemaker.'' They generally ``feared to do much of anything.''

Enter BU

Boston University officials stepped into this environment with a clear conviction of what they wanted and an apparent contempt for what they found. In the full glare of television cameras, Silber pledged the resources of a great university to tackle what he described as ``institutionalized child neglect.''

The remark sparked local protests, especially from Chelsea teachers. ``There was an unnatural fear triggered by Dr. Silber's remark,'' Mr. Siegal says. ``But it's true based on the lack of facilities in the schools: boilers that failed in the dead of winter, windows that wouldn't open, chimneys that fell in.... I was part of the administrative staff that was just spinning its wheels. It's only the dedication of our teachers that kept the system from collapsing.''

When BU took over Chelsea's schools, the city was spending only 17 percent of its budget on education. Other Massachusetts cities were spending an average of 52 percent. Most city officials sent their own children to private schools. Two-thirds of public school students spoke a language other than English at home.

BU's strategy in Chelsea, outlined in a 1988 report by the BU School of Management, emphasized early childhood education. Silber is one of the founders of the Head Start program and remains convinced that ensuring that children begin school ``ready to learn'' is essential. He was also an outspoken critic of educational ``fads,'' such as multiculturalism. The report devoted only a few paragraphs to bilingual education.

There are few shades of gray in how BU officials discuss their educational vision. ``We are committed to the view that English is the main language of the country. BU will not compromise that commitment,'' says Edwin Delattre, dean of the School of Education at BU and a key player in the partnership. ``Some people in Chelsea told me that you've got to be this color, this ethnic background to teach my child. They've got the weight of history against them.''

But BU officials insist that a refusal to agree (or ``pander'') does not indicate a refusal to listen. ``BU officials met with hundreds of parents,'' says Peter Greer, then dean of the School of Education. ``I went into homes. We learned many things.''

He dates BU's fallout with the Commission on Hispanic Affairs to a meeting on April 6, 1989. ``Talking points,'' prepared for the commission by Roger Rice, a Massachusetts attorney active in national litigation for bilingual education, included monthly meetings with the commission, commitment to reach consensus with a parent advisory committee made up of an ethnic mix reflecting the Chelsea public schools (then 50 percent Hispanic), and an agreement to direct 25 percent of all new money raised for the project to community-based organizations.

``These were presented as demands ... if you don't agree with this, we will oppose you,'' says Michael Rosen, associate general counsel for BU. ``This was inappropriate. We weren't negotiating. We were interested in hearing their concerns and happy to alleviate them if we could.''

``There is a problem when people represent groups who have been silent,'' he adds. ``What is their goal? Is that something the school system has to agree to endure and underwrite? These issues are rarely debated. Do I think Hispanics in Chelsea have been treated fairly or well by the all-white power structure before us? No. Will they gain power? Yes. Will it be good for Chelsea? Yes.''

Hispanic groups take root

Before the BU/Chelsea partnership, the expectation of regular consultation or even the right to stand and speak one's mind at a public meeting was not a part of Chelsea's political culture. For the city's Hispanic community, BU's presence and style was a catalyst for political organization. Commission President Marta Rosa won a seat on the Chelsea School Committee in 1989 running on an anti-BU platform. She was the first Hispanic to win elective office in Chelsea.

``The issue of BU was how this organization began,'' says Mr. Vega, who is now on the commission's staff. ``At the time of the April meeting with BU, the commission was 10 members who put $10 into a bank account for fliers. We were able to get a broad group to rally against BU.... We now have a $100,000 a year annual budget. We're developing into a tenants' association, acquiring housing, and producing a bilingual newspaper.''

While tensions between the commission and BU continue, other Hispanic groups in the city are finding a niche in Chelsea's new civic culture, including a working relationship with BU. The Latin American Cultural Association (LACA), for example, is developing a pilot project with BU to ``help high school students maintain a knowledge base of native language and culture.''

Few who know Chelsea well will speak on the record about tensions within the Hispanic community as new organizations emerge. Glenn Jacobs, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts who supported the commission's lawsuit against BU, sees cooperation between BU and other Hispanic groups as part of a BU strategy to discredit the commission by supporting ``more cooperative groups.''

Vin McLellan, a writer and Chelsea community activist who once worked with BU, sees a pattern of domination in the commission's strategy. ``In an arena without a mechanism to develop a truly representative culture, you end up with a mantle of representation available to anyone who can claim it in the loudest voice.... Family-based cadres at the core of very family-oriented, patronage-based machine politics. It's what's been here and what's waiting in the wings. It will take time for other parts of the Hispanic community to feel their way into a more public role.''

``We're seeing people on the commission born here who now won't speak English at meetings. It's reverse racism, and it's becoming very destructive,'' says another Chelsea activist.

Disagreement is surfacing in the Hispanic community on issues such as bilingual education. ``I've spoken with many parents that have come to me upset because their children are being kept in the bilingual program too long and should move on to a regular class,'' says LACA's Ortiz. Even within the commission, activists are finding their own voices. In a June 21 vote to approve a new city charter, commission President Marta Rosa put the commission on record against it, while her husband, Tito, and Juan Vega came out publicly for it.

Chelsea's once-excluded Hispanics are finding their way in the civic life of their city and its schools. Somehow, BU helped them get there.

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