No New England boy was allowed to question that he was destined to succeed in life, and Boston was determined that the boys and girls, and the blind and the lame as well, should have the opportunity to know enough.
So wrote historian Van Wyck Brooks in his 1936 regional portrait. Describing the impact of Horace Mann and the ensuing whirlwind of education reform that transformed the commonwealth and eventually young America, Brooks emphasized the strong New England tradition of pushing growing minds to overcome inadequacies and become scholars.
In retrospect, that description by Brooks could pass for the motivational speak in which contemporary ed reformers traffic. Take, for example, a 2010 report by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE); titled “Human Capital in Boston Public Schools,” the manifesto calls for a “commitment to a high quality public education system that will prepare all students to engage successfully in a global economy and society.”
The tone sounds familiar. Unlike in Horace Mann’s day, however, in 2015 the push for sweeping overhauls in schools comes from business groups like MBAE, whose directorial board is a who’s who of construction, banking, and other executives. Said human capital research was conducted with grants from the Barr Foundation, The Boston Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, all major players in this steady and ubiquitous disruption. The “corporate ed reform movement,” as some critics categorize such venture philanthropy, has come under fire of late due to various brazen grabs for public education dollars. As Business Insider reported last month about a Gates Foundation forum in Manhattan, which was titled Bonds & Blackboards: Investing In Charter Schools:
Hedge funds and other private businesses are particularly interested in the growth and success of charter schools. The growth of charter networks around the US offer new revenue streams for investing, and the sector is quickly growing. Funding for charter schools is further incentivized by generous tax credits for investments to charter schools in underserved areas.
Beneath the surface war between unions and charter school cheerleaders like Gates, a much more nuanced shift in administration and policy has gone virtually unnoticed, at least in the Bay State. As ascertained by interviews conducted for this story, very few families, administrators, or even workers inside Boston Public Schools (BPS) know exactly what’s happening, as the line between traditional schools and their charter counterparts grows blurrier. Even if the public institution in your neighborhood, or the one that your child, niece, or nephew attends, is a public school in name, outside partners may be tasked with duties ranging from teaching to counseling.
Similar to the way in which the MBTA Commuter Rail is operated by Keolis, a private company, an increasing number of third-party players are being given control of Hub schools. Unlike the MBTA arrangement though, this is a case in which money flowing from taxpayers to nonprofit BPS partners is often difficult to trace, and is not always itemized for transparency purposes. Despite tepid-to-weak results stemming from partnerships in Mass so far, the trend continues; in one recent example that spurred controversy among Roxbury residents, BPS handed over the struggling Dearborn School on Geneva Street to a non-governmental entity, along with a new $70 million state-of-the-art Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) facility. The new Dearborn won’t technically be a charter school, but it will be run by a charter operator (or “receiver,” as they’re sometimes called).
Charter partners have varying roles in almost every school where they have contracts, which in certain cases seems to make for an administrative mess. Upon discovering that Shaun Harrison, a dean at English High School in Jamaica Plain, had apparently shot a student who was dealing weed for him, BPS was unable to immediately pinpoint how Harrison first became a city worker. By the time he was employed at English, Harrison had held jobs at four BPS schools, all of which had receiverships or partner agreements during his tenure. More than a month after the arrest, however, very little remains known about his movements as a dean and educator. The Boston Globe concluded in early April that, “His path to Magazine Street [where he allegedly tried to execute a student] may never be fully known. But Harrison worked alone.”
Though pieces of his personal mystery persist, the trail of Harrison’s steps within BPS help to explain how schools in Boston, heck, in all of Massachusetts have been quietly overtaken by many of the same forces behind the Boston 2024 Olympics, the subprime lending crisis, school software and testing companies, and dozens of investment funds and business interests that are impacting everything from policy to curriculum. This is not another article about the fight over the number of commonwealth institutions that operate outside of the direct purview of school districts and unions—the “charter cap” debate, as reporters have characterized that polarizing spat. Nor is this a wholesale attack on the so-called “education reform movement,” which even many of its critics reluctantly concede has forced public school loyalists to welcome new challenges. This saga is infinitely more complex than any of the buzzword dramas playing out in the media, and that may be the most alarming part.
The Boston Plan for Excellence is probably the biggest influencer of BPS culture and policy you’ve never heard of. Born in 1984 and later renamed BPE, the nonprofit was initially funded by First National Bank of Boston, now known as Bank of America, to “foster improvement in the city’s public schools,” and has since provided help and critical support on countless fronts—from the organization’s early days of funding “innovative classroom projects,” to its establishing, in 2002, a “Collaborative Coaching and Learning model” for all of BPS, according to BPE materials.
With success on several fronts and seed-level support from powerful philanthropists at The Boston Foundation, BPE eventually picked up an Annenberg Foundation Challenge grant, and by the aughts began to attract backers like the Carnegie Corporation and the Gates Foundation. Today its board members include Bank of America Chairman Emeritus Charles Gifford, IBM Corporate Communications Manager Maura Banta, and Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish, who has made recent headlines for his key role in the bid to bring the Olympics to Boston.
It’s easy to find teachers and students who rave about their experience with BPE. On the educator side, the nonprofit’s Boston Teacher Residency program has helped develop hundreds of professionals who stayed in the city, 80 percent of whom remained “teaching in [BPS] after three years, compared with 63 percent of their non-BTR peers,” according to BPE materials. Results like those have summoned national acclaim, and when the district was showered in accolades around 2005—among other noted milestones, the Hub’s fourth and eighth graders scored atop the pack nationally in math on that year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress—then-BPS Superintendent Tom Payzant proudly shared the credit and distinction with BPE and its stalwart Executive Director Ellen Guiney, a former education advisor to Ted Kennedy. In an extensive (and mostly positive) review of their collaborative efforts, University of San Diego education science professor Lea Hubbard found, “From the beginning, Payzant cast his improvement efforts as a partnership between BPS and the Plan.”
More than any comparable outfit, BPE is enmeshed into the fabric of BPS and the political landscape in general. The relationship is seamless to the point that the organization acts as the city’s fiscal agent on some projects, an arrangement that makes BPE the proxy for all financial matters, while the organization boasts such influential board members as Rev. Gregory Groover of Charles Street AME Church, who also served on the BPS School Committee from 2007 until last year, and who sits on the board of The Boston Foundation. Relationships between ed reform nonprofits and top-level administrators run deep; as noted in an independent audit by the commonwealth last year, despite former BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson having served as a non-voting BPE trustee in 2013 and 2012, the nonprofit “recognized grant revenue from BPS totaling $739,000 and $1,189,043, respectively.”
In Massachusetts, charter initiatives have had bipartisan support for more than a decade. In 2004, with a faithful ally in Republican Governor Mitt Romney, Beacon Hill lawmakers filed 29 bills related to charter schools. In short time, BPE and other outside partners were entrusted with more funding, public and private, along with which came more responsibility and higher salaries. In one instance, BPE used grant funds to develop “a comprehensive database for the district of all newly hired [BPS] teachers.” For their role in teacher coaching, hiring support, and other services, BPE officers, directors, and key employees made $445,138 in 2013, salaries which account for roughly 20 percent of their overall operating expenses. Executive Director Jesse Solomon was compensated $204,039 in 2013; his predecessor, the Kennedy advisor Guiney, made in excess of half-a-million dollars as a board member from 2010 to 2012.
The loudest critics of BPE and similar enterprises have been union teachers who fear that people without relevant experience are making major decisions. A civics teacher interviewed for this story says that at the Dever Elementary School in Dorchester, students in one class year saw nearly all of their teachers purged on two occasions—one time during a failed turnaround plan, and again last year when the Newton-based Blueprint Schools Network assumed receivership. “Tell me there’s isn’t trauma attached to that,” says another close observer of the Dever situation. “Imagine walking into a building and not recognizing a single face.”
The Dearborn in its former glory
There are also accountability issues; skeptics note that BPE is annually responsible for doling out more than $6 million in government funding despite having been found in 2010 to be operating without “timesheets, a time study, or other means to determine” if salaries and fringe benefits were appropriately processed for its teacher residency program. Nevertheless, in the time since, the organization was given the greenlight to open the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School in Roxbury, and has also now been put in charge of the aforementioned Dearborn School. The decision on the STEM academy, ushered through the approval process by interim BPS Superintendent John McDonough, was met by protests from community members who had lobbied with teachers and administrators for the new facility. When the Dearborn opens as the first new school in Roxbury in more than a decade, many of the longtime faculty members who they collaborated with won’t get to share in the experience; instead, the building will be under BPE control.
“We are excited to be engaging with the Dearborn community to develop together a plan for the future of the school,” wrote Solomon, the BPE executive director, in an email response to Dig inquiries. “We are fortunate to be already deeply engaged in the Dudley community … The mission of the school is that the students of the Dearborn STEM Academy will graduate with the 21st century skills required for college and career success and serve as thoughtful, engaged citizens, who recognize the assets and needs of their community.”
More than two weeks after his arrest, BPS was still mining its internal files for any applications and paperwork related to the tenure of reverend and accused shooter Shaun Harrison. Records that were eventually found and disclosed to the media suggest he first turned up in the system at Odyssey High School in South Boston, where Harrison reportedly began working in 2010 on the strength of prior training in human services. For two to three years prior to that, he worked as an outreach case manager and mentoring specialist for the Bird Street Community Center, the whole time running a side business called Youth In Crisis Ministry Inc., which Harrison appears to have incubated throughout his gradual downfall.
If there ever were a place where Harrison could slip through the cracks or go unseen, that place was Odyssey, one of three experimental institutions (along with Excel and Monument high schools) carved out of South Boston High during the “small schools” craze. Amidst a seismic overhaul in his time there, an army of consultants and assorted ed reformers swarmed Southie High, using the building as an experimental teaching lab and an apparent dumping ground for undesirable cronies. Years later, the Boston Globe discovered that the Odyssey headmaster, whose official attendance record didn’t reflect his penchant for tardiness and absenteeism, had dated a former colleague of Superintendent Johnson.
In the wake of the headmaster debacle, BPS closed Odyssey and relocated its students to Boston Green Academy in Brighton, where Harrison shows up on the city payroll as having worked as a community field director making $36,000 in 2012. A district spokesperson says Harrison was interviewed and vetted for every job he took in BPS, all paraprofessional positions until he was tapped as a dean at English last year. Notwithstanding his being disciplined twice by supervisors at Green Academy—once for allegedly pushing and throwing a roll of tape at one student, and again for using inappropriate language—in 2013 Harrison was hired at the Orchard Gardens K-8 pilot school in Roxbury, where his salary increased by $15,000 to nearly $51,500. A BPS spokesperson told the Dig he was picked out of an “excess pool” of candidates.
Other than an incarcerated son—one of his eight children—and a few students who have remained loyal to the street pastor, most former acquaintances have publicly distanced themselves from Harrison since his arrest in March. In news reports, delegates from churches with which he has been affiliated told several versions of the same story, all roughly accurate as far as Dig sources confirm, about a consummate outsider who bounced between careers and ministries. There’s no clear paper trail to tell who pulled which strings and for whom, or if there were favors in the first place, but at the least it appears Harrison was wired to the right people.
- For several years Harrison worked at the Charles Street AME Church under Rev. Groover, the BPE board member and trustee at The Boston Foundation who served on the appointed Boston School Committee.
- In 2014, Harrison’s Youth In Crisis Ministries was among several recipients of funding provided by The Boston Foundation for “My Summer In The City,” a program “to support open spaces” and provide “activities for thousands of youth.”
- Every school that Harrison worked in had some kind of third-party partnership in place. Before imploding, Odyssey was steered by the titular High School Renewal Workgroup, a joint venture between the deep-pocketed Boston Private Industry Council and BPE (among others). Green Academy partnered with the Boston Teacher Quality Network, in which BPE played a key role. BPE also has its hand in program coordination and data analysis at Orchard Gardens.
However Harrison wound up in such important positions, it’s unfair to blame any schools or organizations with which he was affiliated for his brutal actions. At the same time, one source told the Daily Beast that Harrison was known as someone who would hold knives for students during school, while two people who worked with him at Green say his inappropriate remarks included asking a female student for her digits. Considering his transience, noted behavior, and reputation, the accused shooter dean serves as an especially ugly emblem of apparent oversight run amok.
“You don’t know what the hell is going on,” says Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, a co-chairman of the Citywide Parent Council and member of the anti-corporate ed reform group Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST). He continues: “Nobody has a plan of any coherent form … With the partners they partner with, they’re just grateful for the help.”
At English, where Blueprint took the reins last year, and where Harrison worked his final district job, a BPS spokesperson told the Globe that he had a “community or family outreach coordinator role, charged with coordinating services for students and families.” Harrison was part of Blueprint’s mission to “work in partnership with the district to implement high-impact strategies to help the schools more rapidly improve outcomes for students.” A BPS spokesperson told the Dig that Blueprint was not involved in the hiring process, and that Harrison beat out between 35 and 40 other applicants.
Sandra McIntosh understands the difficulty of the duties with which Harrison was tasked. She worked at English for 13 of her 15 years as a BPS employee, first as a volunteer, then as a librarian and paraprofessional in various roles. When a new headmaster established a center for parent outreach, McIntosh was given the responsibility of handling and resolving home issues. “It’s a very delicate position,” she says.
After surviving a round of layoffs in 2010 that severed other family outreach coordinators, McIntosh saw her job description eroded until she was finally let go last June. She was out; Harrison was in. “I was a part-time social worker. I did home visits with nurses. I had monthly parent meetings. I was the parent liaison to the governing board,” says McIntosh. “Students would come to me sometimes when they couldn’t go and talk to other people. I’ve had to call employers to make them stop working my kids more than 20 hours a week; I’ve met with the managers at Stop & Shop.”
Ironically, McIntosh says programs she participated in with BPE in the ’90s helped lead her to a rewarding career at English—possibly more proof that individuals, students and teachers alike, are more important than programs or perhaps even infrastructure. With hope along those lines in mind, she still reads to BPS kids at after-school programs affiliated with AARP. She recently opened retirement papers.
In late March, interim Superintendent McDonough asked the heads of 13 departments to resign before the arrival of Dr. Tommy Chang to replace him. As McDonough told the school committee: “I believe that this step will offer Dr. Chang important flexibility to make organizational decisions based on what is best for the district and the students we serve.”
For some, the prospect of an entirely new team in the central office adds insult to uncertainty. With the slate wiped clean, Chang, who previously served as a charter school principal and as a regional director for the California Charter Schools Association, has free rein to bring in collaborators. In an interview with the new superintendent, the Globe reported, “He is open to developing more partnerships, not only with charter schools but also universities and other organizations.” “I believe parents want high-quality schools close to home,” Chang said. “I’m committed to making BPS schools high-quality schools, and that may call for more collaboration.”
It appears Chang was chosen with that penchant in mind. This reporter personally interviewed the other three finalists for the superintendent position, all of whom said in no uncertain terms that BPS should search for answers from within the district—including from charters that are already operating, many with tremendous success—before seeking more help from outside. Those in charge, however, have chosen a different direction. Last year, receivers were installed at two more BPS schools that were in danger of failing, including the Dever in Dorchester, which went to Blueprint. Meanwhile, Blueprint has had notable problems at English; besides the Harrison scandal, according to a Globe study, in 2014 the school dropped “11 points in English and five points in math in the sophomore MCAS from the previous year.”
All of which amounts to small potatoes in the overall scheme of things. BPS is currently facing a budget deficit of more than $40 million and the possible shutdown of schools, yet all signs indicate that more public money will be paid to outside partners. That seems to be the plan for now, though one contingent of ed reform advocates is also working to remove the cap on the number of actual charter schools in the state (Boston currently has 34, the most allowed by law). Last month, a dream team of attorneys (including Foley Hoag partner Michael B. Keating, who also chairs The Boston Foundation board of directors) announced that they will challenge the cap in court “on behalf of children who want to attend charter schools but could not find seats and had to enroll in underperforming district schools.”
As for the rest of the students stranded in underperforming schools, there don’t appear to be any lawsuits on their behalf on the horizon …
“There’s a move to have more community partners come in,” says Berents-Weeramuni, the co-chairman of the Citywide Parent Council and member of QUEST. “BPE, Blueprint, UP—I think that type of relationship will only accelerate … Overall there’s a sense of, ‘I don’t know who these guys are and who they’re accountable to.’ You just don’t know anymore. BPS has done some good things, but now all of a sudden you don’t know who to talk to.”