The Boston Public Schools have an illustrious history. In 1635, Boston Latin became the first public school in America. The Abiel Smith School on Beacon Hill was the first public school building in the nation built for African American children.
Things are better. Turnaround schools, a longer school day for some kids, better scores, charter schools—all these and more have inspired a new confidence that public education in Boston can flourish and attract.
Unfortunately, though, central Boston is without adequate seats for all the kids who want to attend public schools. In fact, Beacon Hill, the Back Bay, the West End and the downtown have no schools at all.
How did this situation get so bad?
A declining population of kids, busing, financial constraints, and a reluctance to provide schooling for families who were perceived to prefer and be able to afford private schools are the reasons the BPS has so few places for downtown kids.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, central Boston had many elementary schools. Such buildings, now re-purposed, still stand—the Sharp School at the top of Anderson Street and the Phillips School on Phillips Street on Beacon Hill. (These schools had other names too.)
Schools gradually closed because fewer children lived in Boston. By the 1950s, families were moving to the suburbs. The advent of busing caused even more families to leave.
The West End lost its schools when the neighborhood was razed in 1959. Apparently no one believed any resident in the replacement towers would need a school.
The Prince School on Newbury Street closed in 1981 and by 1986 had been converted to retail space and residential condominiums. The Peter Faneuil closed in 1989 and was transformed into subsidized housing in the 1990s. But these schools were actually closed to children in the mid-1970s, being used for supplementary programs during the last years of their lives.
BPS says the schools were closed due to declining enrollment. It was true for the whole city, but a reverse trend was already occurring downtown. Rooming houses were being turned into single-family houses. Tenements were being converted into owner-occupied condominiums and apartments. Long before the current back-to-the-city trend, Beacon Hill and the Back Bay were seeing families return. A Boston Globe article about the Faneuil School closing in 1975 quoted a parent who said, “In the past five years there’s been a tremendous increase in the number of families with young children on the Hill, and they intended to stay because of the excellence of the [Peter Faneuil] school.”
The full classes at the Beacon Hill Nursery School and the John Winthrop Nursery School at the time confirm her words. Downtown school parents remember other reasons for the schools closing. Lise Striar of Beacon Hill said her family was told that the Peter Faneuil School couldn’t accommodate the buses. Smaller buses, maybe?
Ironically, the Peter Faneuil was already hosting buses. It had been integrated during the 1960s, when Boardman School parents from Roxbury began a busing program to take advantage of what was perceived to be a good school.
According to a BRA document, city officials were aware that, without a school, a neighborhood suffers. In 1970, John Warner, then head of the BRA, said “The Back Bay, if we are to preserve it as a neighborhood, will be dealt a very severe blow if the Prince School is closed.” He added, “one of the strong factors in sustaining the neighborhood feeling and development is the neighborhood school.”
Yet the schools closed anyway.
In 2001, Emerson College put its building on Brimmer Street on the market. Several Beacon Hill residents tried to persuade then-superintendent Thomas Payzant and Mayor Menino to establish a public school at that location. An anonymous donor offered to buy the building, being repaid by Boston over several years.
Payzant and Menino rejected the proposal. Some said the mayor didn’t believe Beacon Hill and Back Bay residents would actually use a public school. Maybe Mayor Menino didn’t realize that whenever a meeting was held about a public school, the room was packed.
Another rumor flying around was that one contemptible resident told the mayor that only the children of Beacon Hill and Back Bay were welcome. No one else held that opinion, but the mayor was said to believe that they did.
Whatever the reason for the rejection, Beacon Hill, the Back Bay, and the West End, not to mention the Fenway, are still without schools. The Quincy in Chinatown, the Eliot in the North End and the elementary schools in Charlestown are oversubscribed.
This circumstance means that 70 percent of the children born on Beacon Hill do not grow up there, according to the Beacon Hill Civic Association. It means school-created obstacles prevent downtown parents from sending kids to the public schools. For example, South Boston residents get their first choice in schools more than 90 percent of the time. Beacon Hill and Back Bay parents get their first choice only 43 percent of the time. So they move.
Even as the BPS tries to make schools more walkable for most kids, downtown kids don’t have a choice. There are no schools to walk to.
This situation is unfair to downtown kids, and it is bad for Boston. It is embarrassing that the city forward thinking enough to educate black children when most blacks still were slaves can’t educate the children now living in that same neighborhood. Mayor Menino is back on his feet. Make it happen, Mayor.
Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.