Some Boston Public Schools are effective and beloved by their students and those students’ parents. They are coveted but oversubscribed, so it is hard to get your child into one. The Eliot in the North End and Charlestown’s Warren/Prescott are good examples.
The Hurley School in the South End is also an effective, coveted school. But it wasn’t always. It took a group of strategic parents and a new principal to set it on a course of massive improvement. The story of its revival offers lessons that other strategic parents can apply.
It started more than 10 years ago.
A group of South End neighbors lamented that their children would not be able to go to school together, said Electa Sevier, mother of twins who are now in seventh grade. The good, nearby schools were all oversubscribed. Some parents planned to move out of the city. Others were considering private schools.
But, as the core group of about 15 families talked, an idea emerged. What if they all applied to the Hurley School, almost a “turnaround” school? That is the name for a school so woefully inadequate that the state requires new staffing, new everything to bring the instruction up to snuff.
The Hurley was supposed to be a bilingual immersion school, teaching Spanish and English to all, but the kids’ scores were so low and the resources so inadequate that few parents put it on their list. No one wanted their kids to go there. That meant that in Boston’s byzantine school selection process, the South End parents could make the Hurley their first choice. and their kids would probably get in.
And if their kids got in, they, the parents, would turn it around. So they got going. Sevier detailed what they did.
They formed a non-profit entity, Neighborhood Parents for the Hurley, to raise money. They threw lunch parties for the faculty, learning what the teachers felt the school needed. They applied for grants. They held fund-raising bashes. They encouraged other middle class families to join them, hoping that more income diversity would help new standards kick in. They met with then-school superintendent Tom Paysant, who was their South End neighbor. They enlisted their city councilor in their efforts. In one unpopular move, they converted a free parking lot long used by nearby residents into a turf playing field.
Along the way, they got a new, effective principal who saw them as allies. Sevier called her “fearless.” A few ineffective teachers were persuaded to leave. A suburban temple helped raise money for a library—a resource so fundamental it is hard to imagine that some schools don’t have one.
Parents contributed their fund-raising skills, graphic design skills and community organizing skills. They helped the principal revise a budget. They introduced enrichment programs such as art and music and field trips that private schools consider basic.
They converted the gym into a beautiful room that could also accommodate tables so there could be a cafeteria.
So what is the Hurley like now? It’s not perfect. It has met its targets in narrowing proficiency gaps for only two out of five income groups. Yet scores in language arts and math are on target or above in all groups. While more than 72 percent of the students are eligible for a free lunch, attendance is more than 94 percent, the drop-out rate is negligible and achievement is valued. Parents are annually raising more than $100,000 in extra funds for the school. It now has an after-school enrichment program. In 2012, the Hurley was named by the school advocacy group EdVestors as one of three “Schools on the Move” finalists. The school remains overwhelmingly Hispanic but now neighborhood parents of all heritages want their kids to go there, and, naturally, the school is oversubscribed.
Electa Sevier’s children have prospered at the new Hurley. They are fluent in both Spanish and English and one has moved on to Boston Latin. She and other parents are still working on changing some of the complicated funding patterns that end up assigning less money to schools that have improved. But the parents accomplished their goals of educating their children well and keeping their children together. Check out www.discoverhurley.org to see more about the parents and their successes.
If you’re a downtown parent, can you solve your school problems the way Electa Sevier and her neighbors did?
Not unless you have an actual school to go to. Few schools exist downtown, even bad ones. You can find “Downtown Schools for Boston,” a school advocacy group, on Facebook. They are working to establish more schools for downtown kids.
And even if you find an actual school near your home, you might have to take away neighborhood parking to make it happen. So you’ll need to be brave.
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.