Located across the street from Fenway Park, Boston Arts Academy is the city’s only public arts high school. Founded in 1998, the school harbors about 450 students, myself included, all brought together by a love for the arts. The building, formerly a warehouse, has gone through a lot over the decades. While it wasn’t falling apart, it was remarkably bland. Most spaces felt cramped, and there wasn’t even an auditorium—just a small black box that only fit 100 people.
In December 2017, our school was finally okayed for some serious renovations under Mayor Marty Walsh’s BuildBPS plan. While this meant we would have to move all the way to Dorchester and share the building with the Community Academy of Science and Health for three years, the end result would give future BAA students the creatively fulfilling space they deserve. However, while we were complaining about our temporary move, other BPS students were losing not only their buildings, but their entire school communities.
BuildBPS is a plan to renovate, merge and build new schools over the next decade. “BuildBPS is an opportunity to invest in school buildings that will deliver high-quality learning environments for our students for generations to come,” said Walsh in a press release. “In order to achieve our goals, we need to think big and work together to build a bright future for our school.” According to the BuildBPS Phase II Report, the goals of the initiative are to “expand access to quality learning environments for more students, locate new or expand buildings in neighborhoods with high student need and low current access, create more equitable program placement and learning opportunities for vulnerable students, and reduce pre-K-12 transitions by creating clear pathways.”
BAA has been positively affected by BuildBPS, with renovations underway 20 years after the doors first opened. The project budget is $125 million—only a tiny fraction of the $1 billion going into BuildBPS overall.
However, the McCormack Middle School, which is also part of this initiative, is getting the short end of the stick. The Dorchester school, along with Urban Science Academy and West Roxbury Academy, is being affected in the worst way—the school, as well as the community, is being destroyed in order to phase out middle schools. The current BuildBPS plan neglects these communities, and places the best interest of future students far above those of current students.
The original plan stated that McCormack will close in 2020 and its students will become part of Excel High School, a lower-performing school. Traditionally in a school merge like this, the entire staff and students would move to Excel and become a new community. However, that is not what is happening with McCormack.
“It's more like dismantle and then send the kids to Excel on their own," said Neema Avashia, a teacher at the McCormack who has spent months advocating for the community. "What upsets me about it is that it’s not necessary. They're going to need seventh and eighth grade teachers when they go to Excel, so why would we, as a city, enact additional harm on kids? It's already going to be hard enough for kids to change schools… there's no reason to separate the adults and the kids."
Rob Consalvo, Chief of Staff of BPS, talked about the plan and how our voices are being heard. “We are extremely sympathetic to the aspect of closing schools and recognize how difficult that is,” he said. According to Consalvo, BPS is listening to both students and teachers, considering the ideas they are putting forth and using that feedback to devise the final plan.
One of the biggest motivators for the BuildBPS plan is making fewer transitions for students—which involves getting rid of middle schools. According to Consalvo, in 2009, there were a total of 16 middle schools in Boston. Currently, there are only six. This dissolution of middle schools is already happening naturally, and the McCormack is part of that demographic.“We believe that it's in the best interest of the entire district to give parents that sense of continuity, to move away from middle schools and into that shorter structure," explained Consalvo.
Yet, while it makes perfect sense to lessen the transitions from school to school, there is no clear explanation as to why the McCormack can’t travel as a community.
"Closing a school, taking kids out of their community—it hurts,” said Avashia. “The number of our kids who—if you watch our school committee testimony—they're like, 'The McCormack is my home.’ When you take someone's home away, that's traumatizing.”
Even though she, and many others, are possibly losing their jobs, that’s not their main concern. They are looking out for their students—something they feel the BuildBPS plan isn’t doing.
“That is completely outrageous and irritates me,” said TaNeja Williams, a student at BAA and a McCormack graduate. “My question is, why can’t the McCormack be treated the same way and be given the opportunity to have a swing space, thus keeping the community intact, as the Boston Arts Academy was granted?”
BuildBPS is for the future. It isn’t for the students of right now—it is for the wealthier class taking over urban areas where working class and minority families live, and their future kids. “It's getting more and more expensive for my kids and their families to live in the city,” Avashia said. “So when you are reading them a letter in school that says 'Oh, we're going to make your building really nice, but it's not for you'—kids experience that as being evicted, the same way you get evicted from a house.”
Recently, interim BPS superintendent Laura Perille stated that in response to the backlash from the McCormack community, the plan may shift—leaders are considering a model in which teachers will help select a partner high school and create a new 7-12 school to move into the building on the McCormack site after renovations. However, even if this plan is ultimately accepted, Avashia believes the fight is far from over.
"What's happening to my kids now is going to happen five more times,” Avashia says. “And there are going to be ripple effects.”