Boston Public School parents worry about high school options

JUST OVER HALF of Boston Public School parents are satisfied with their options among the district’s available high schools, a new survey found, with fewer parents than ever before saying BPS lives up to its commitments as the school district remains under the harsh scrutiny of skeptical state education officials.

Parents said their chief concerns about high school options are education quality and safety, according to the poll conducted by the MassINC Polling Group, which shares a parent organization with CommonWealth. Only 55 percent of the 841 parents surveyed said they were satisfied with the high schools available to their kids.

In letter-grade terms, only 20 percent of parents gave the school system overall an “A,” with a quarter of parents giving Mayor Michelle Wu’s handling of BPS an “A.”

Only about half of BPS parents are satisfied with their children’s available high school options. (MassINC Polling Group graphic)

Faced with a scathing assessment of the school system that pre-dated her tenure, Wu has been at loggerheads with state education officials who are demanding more oversight of the school district, pledging to make urgent improvements while maintaining full local control over the schools.

Last year, state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley offered a critical review of the school district, though he stopped short of calling for state receivership. To keep BPS under local control and from being declared “underperforming,” Boston and the state agreed to an improvement plan backed by $10 million in state funding. But Riley tore into the city’s progress in June for failing to meet several goals regarding school bus times and renovating bathrooms, as well as lagging in hiring a special education leader or delivering a plan, for moving more special education students into mainstream classrooms.

Since then, the district reports, a new chief of specialized services was hired. Bathroom facility renovations are in line to be complete by the end of the year. Bus times are improved, with over 200 new drivers hired since May 2022, but not yet at the improvement plan target of 95 percent of buses arriving on time.

The new survey is the seventh wave of BPS parent polls that MassINC Polling Group has conducted since summer 2021, with the past five waves sponsored by the Boston-based Shah Family Foundation and the first two by Populace.

Asking about high school offerings, a new addition to the poll this cycle, is particularly timely because of Wu recently unveiled ambitious plans for two of the city’s high schools.

In June, Wu called for the O’Bryant School of Math and Science, one of the city’s three selective-admission exam schools, to be relocated from Roxbury to West Roxbury, while promising major renovation and expansion of Madison Park vocational high school school, which currently shares a campus with O’Bryant.

The announcement was not well received by Riley and has faced pushback from many parents. “We were, candidly, blindsided by a major plan for high schools that seemed half-baked at best,” Riley said at the time. He said the state – along with parents, teachers, and some school committee members – was not given any advance notice of the plan.

The polling reflects the frustration parents have with the district’s inability to follow through on plans, said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group.

“Many city leaders will say ‘we’re gonna fix this, and here’s a plan,’ and then two years later, it’s still a crisis,” he said. “Also, in fairness, this is not only a problem in Boston, and it’s not only that Boston specifically has done something wrong. Large school districts all across the country have been facing challenges for a long time, and particularly in the last couple of years. But the high school issue is something that I think Boston, specifically, is really grappling with these days.”

In each round of the BPS polls, parents were asked how well the Boston school system is living up to its commitment to “transforming the lives of all children through exemplary teaching in a world-class system of innovative, welcoming schools.”

Overall, a majority of parents offered positive responses, with 23 percent saying the system is doing very well and 44 percent saying it’s doing somewhat well at keeping to that commitment. But positive responses to that question have been on a steady decline since summer 2021, and parents are also now less likely to say BPS makes them feel welcome or that BPS enables them to engage with their child’s education than in any past wave, according to the polling group.

While 78 percent of parents said they wanted to be very engaged with their kids’ education, only 41 percent said the school system allows them to be. 

“There’s a lot of unease with the parents’ ability to engage with the school district or with the child’s education, and also just with how the district itself is actually doing,” Koczela said.

The availability of extracurricular activities was another area of parent concern, with just 52 percent of parents saying their child’s school offers enough extracurriculars like art and music, and 45 percent say there are enough after-school sports.

Though parents overall said there were enough Advanced Placement classes available at their kids’ high schools, there is a sharp racial divide. More than 70 percent of White parents report enough AP classes, while 53 percent of parents of color said there were none at all, not enough, or that they were uncertain as to the offerings. 

“The Boston Public Schools is committed to providing our young people with the best quality education,” said BPS spokesman Max Baker. “We are proud to see that a large majority of survey respondents are satisfied with their individual schools, but we also recognize that there are deep inequities across our district that we must work with urgency to address. BPS is making positive impacts on the lives of our students by working to hire and retain a talented workforce that reflects our student body, offering a range of advanced coursework including new Advanced Placement courses at 10 schools, and expanding athletics and extracurricular activities.”

Adding to the challenge of boosting curricular offerings and extracurricular opportunities is the steep decline Boston has seen in school-aged children and public school enrollment. Appearing on an episode of the Codcast last year, Will Austin, founder and CEO of the Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit working to improve quality in Boston schools, pointed to a combination of soaring housing costs, the complicated student assignment process, and uneven quality of schools in the district as factors accelerating that enrollment trend.

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