EduMom in CommonWealth Magazine: Listen to New Bedford families, not special interests

I wrote this piece for today’s Commonwealth Magazine.

At Massachusetts Parents United we have been working with New Bedford parents on the ground for several months. It’s what we do.

Now isn’t it about time we listened to them?

SINCE THE 2016 BALLOT campaign around charter schools, we’ve seen victory lap after victory lap from the regressive anti-innovation crowd in education, but zero solutions presented to address the real and persistent problems that plague our education systems in urban areas.

While those claiming they are trying to “Save Our Public Schools” continue to congratulate themselves, we are losing children while failing to provide access to the high quality education we have promised them.

A showdown over these issues is now unfolding in New Bedford, where local officials are rallying against a proposal by the Alma del Mar Charter School to open two new schools in the city serving some 1,188 students.

To listen to New Bedford’s political leaders and others tell it, you might think that an education miracle has suddenly happened in the city. Apparently, New Bedford has engineered a remarkable turnaround of its district public schools, and is providing our children with an education on par with some of the more affluent districts in the state after generations of underperformance.

In a recent Commonwealth piece, two city leaders boasted of “stemming the tide of mediocrity and ineffectiveness that branded the district poorly across the state.”

There’s city pride — and then there’s delusion. The numbers tell a very different story than the one New Bedford leaders spin. And parents know it.

The authors focused on a few shining examples of quality that exist in New Bedford, and neglected to mention that all of them serve only grades K-5 and enroll less than one-quarter of the city’s elementary students. According to the state’s new accountability system, half of New Bedford’s students attend schools that rank in the bottom 10 percent of all schools in the Commonwealth.

Statewide, New Bedford is ranked 4th from the bottom in terms of academic performance – downfrom sixty five years ago. That definitely looks like movement, just in the wrong direction.

Fourteen of the city’s 19 district elementary schools are performing below state averages. At eight of those schools, less than 40 percent of the children are performing at grade level.

It’s even worse at the city’s three middle schools, where 22 percent of our children are performing at grade level in English, while 19 percent are doing so in math.

The high school? The city loses nearly half its students between 8th and 9th grade as parents seek other options. Five years ago, New Bedford High School had the second-lowest graduation rate of any district in Massachusetts. Today, it has the second lowest — no improvement. On the 2018 MCAS, New Bedford High had the lowest percent of 10th graders show they could read or think critically, and the third-lowest percent show the same acuity for math compared to all public high schools in the state. Among the students entering 9th grade in 2010, just 19 percent went on to earn a college degree.

This is the reality parents in New Bedford are facing.

There are thousands of families in New Bedford who are committed to raising their families in New Bedford. They are proud of their community, its diversity, and its history. But we also need our leaders to be honest about our struggles if we are to believe they are committed to making things better for our kids — and these families deserve the truth.

Children in New Bedford deserve to be given every opportunity to succeed, including receiving the best education possible. That is why these families are supportive of the proposed expansion of the Alma del Mar Charter School, a public school that has proven to provide a high quality education on par with the best New Bedford has to offer.

On most statewide assessment exams, Alma has consistently scored at or near the top among all public schools citywide and has matched or exceeded the scores of more affluent, neighboring school districts, such as Fairhaven and Dartmouth. This success cuts across all demographic groups, including children who are identified as economically disadvantaged, special needs, English learners, or high needs.

Alma del Mar’s middle school students were the highest performing students in New Bedford, with more than twice as many students displaying proficiency in math and English language arts as district students. Among sixth graders, 61 percent of Alma students passed the math portion of the MCAS, compared to 23 percent of district 6th graders, while 57 percent of Alma sixth graders passed the English portion compared with 28 percent of district students. At the elementary level, Alma del Mar third graders students passed the Math MCAS at the same rate as students in Wellesley.

English language learners at Alma passed the MCAS at twice the rate of their statewide peers. African American and Latinx scholars passed the MCAS at nearly double the rate of their statewide peers. And while there is more work to be done, students with disabilities at Alma passed the MCAS at nearly twice the rate of their statewide peers in math and 8 percentage points higher in English.

Some of New Bedford’s political leaders who are so ardently opposed to an expanded Alma have the audacity to ask parents to continue to send their children to underperforming district schools in the hopes that they’ll improve over time. But the track record of improvement does little to inspire confidence that anything will change.

Fundamentally, this comes down to the ego and political aspiration of adults over the needs of New Bedford’s children. These leaders do not like the idea that a new public school – run by leaders of an existing school with a track record of success — will be founded in the city, because it will operate independent of the district.

The children who would attend Alma will still be children of New Bedford; they will still attend a public school. But it will operate outside “the system,” and so “the system” has led an aggressive campaign to make sure that parents won’t be able to make their own decisions regarding the education of their children. They claim expanding Alma will prevent the hoped-for improvements in the district.

But this is not a zero-sum game. Expanding Alma will provide expanded opportunities now for New Bedford’s children, while the city continues to implement its improvement plan.

We can and need to do both.

The authors argued that state decision makers should not listen to the “think-tank crowd” when deciding whether to grant Alma seats. But one thing is for sure: They should listen to parents. In addition to the hundreds of families who have chosen to send their children to the existing Alma charter school, more than 500 remain on a waiting list. Hundreds more have written letters and signed a petition in support of Alma’s application to expand.

Our kids’ futures and livelihoods depend on receiving a great education. We are not OK with people cherry picking information on the district schools to paint a picture that all is well and moving in the right direction. We cannot and should not politicize our kids’ education.

Keri Rodrigues is the founder of Massachusetts Parents United, the largest urban parent advocacy organization in the Commonwealth.

What do you think?

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