My Statement on Mission Hill

It has been a tough year on many fronts. Personally, my brother died and professionally — read on…

Last year I realized that the K-8 Pilot school I helped create in Boston in 1997, Mission Hill (MH), was entering its 24th year. We should be planning a 25th birthday party.

Instead, this year in May, the local School Board closed the school and destroyed its reputation using information from a nearly 200-page legal report focusing on what it considered to be the school’s serious failings. These ranged from bullying and sexual misconduct to failure to educate students and to properly fulfill its obligations to the special education population. 

And this failure, according to the law firm that was hired to investigate, goes back at least a dozen years, six years after I had retired in 2004. Wow. This was when I got worried. Something else was, it seemed, going on.

I read the report. It is a tough read, probably correct in some of its reporting but often flawed in what it claims to have happened. The accused have been asked not to speak out about the report while their cases are being considered, and thus cannot refute or add to what has been published. My concerns about the law firm’s factual information as well as factual ignorance is heightened by their explicit opposition to the school’s educational viewpoint. But it must be said that it is impossible to know how common the behaviors described have been in many or most Boston schools before and after the pandemic, even in schools with fewer special-needs students.

We do know from testimony of parents at School Committee meetings and recent news items (Boston Arts Academy student walkout to protest failure to address bullying at their school is but one example) that bullying is an ongoing problem everywhere. If we closed every school that had not solved its bullying problems, we would have very few schools left open in the nation.

Three issues most concerned me after reading the report. First and foremost, why were the new teacher/leaders put on leave, despite having acknowledged good work during their short tenure.  Secondly, the timeline of the events and the release of the report, as the principal was no longer with the school and the school was closed for most of the pandemic, so unclear why the school was closed at this time. And finally, I am left wondering why, if the Central Office believed there had been a problem for so many years, they had not reached out to help and support the school years earlier.

This closing fits a pattern I am all too familiar with regarding experiments in serious changes in traditional school practices, above all when a school’s reputation threatens the power and authority of “The System” and “gets away with” not following previously accepted rules or routines. Such school closings also serve to prove that public schools cannot do what private charter schools can – the argument I sought to disprove at the Central Park East and Mission Hill schools along with many many others that followed—Only a few survive.

Having read and reread my late friend and colleague, Seymour Sarason’s  “The Inevitable Failure of School Reform” I wanted to see if Mission Hill was an example of the inevitable. = What could have been done to save a school that everyone had lauded and studied, visited and filmed — or, alternatively, how had so many parents, students and very experienced school people and school researchers been fooled? Ditto re Central Park East in East Harlem, New York.

There were many ways in which Boston Public Schools (BPS) made Mission Hill School’s task difficult to carry outafter the Superintendent who worked with the union to initiate the Pilot left. Examples:

  1. In 2012, BPS moved the school to a very different neighborhood and a physical setting unsuited to the school’s stated aims, population, and existing structure.
    1. At about the same time, Boston Public Schools added a new group of special-needs students—soon constituting 35 percent of Mission Hill School’s population — almost double the proportions typical of Boston Public Schools. 
    2. In approximately 2010, the district eliminated the position of a liaison between the pilot schools and the district office. This person had been critical in helping me, for example, deal with “downtown.”
    3. Having removed the school’s leadership and released the report so late they made it hard for families to organize on behalf the school
    4. At some point Boston Public Schools required Mission Hill to abandon its curriculum, which was deeply a part of the school’s rationale for existing and for the structure it chose so as to align with it, in favor of BPSs standardized curriculum.

Our school’s inability to defend itself was in part due to the loss of key allies such as the chair of Harvard’s Education school, Vito Perrone, who was also the first co-chair of our governing board, as well as the death of Ted Sizer which also led to the demise of the Coalition of Essential Schools (Mission Hill was a member of the Coalition and they were a powerful network). 

We were on the chopping block for so many reasons. More than we ever knew.

I have spent hours trying to make sense of what happened. More and more has come to light. If the report had been released when promised (it was held until April 27, after parents and teachers could no longer find good schools to attend and work at) those of us wanting to object would have had time to research and refute some of the falsehoods in the report, and to understand why this happened as it did. Currently there is a pending Public Records Request for communication between Brenda Cassellius, Superintendent of BPS and Jeri Robinson, BPS School Board chair – in the belief that it would show that the decision was motivated by dwindling enrollment and the threat of receivership. And maybe as a last show of power by a much criticized Superintendent before Brenda Cassellius’s departure on June 30.

This is a tragedy, but can we at least learn from it? Too many children and parents have been hurt by bullying, hopefully more attention by society to this issue might help. If schools could trust the system to be supportive and transparent it would better enable them to address this critical issue. But equally important is changing the relationship between the central authorities so that more autonomy on the local level is not a threat to “downtown”. We cannot let this pass without examination by those who have studied schools and school reform.

So, if you want a fuller account of the factual history let me know. Some former colleagues and friends have collectively put together an account of the events that led to this sad ending of what was a wonderful experience for us at Mission Hill. 

For more about what Mission Hill was like, you can get a glimpse watching Tom and Amy Valen’s film Good Morning Mission Hill (go to Deborahmeier.com for more). and also read This School Belongs to You and Me by Emily Gasoi and Deborah Meier.  

Deborah

4 Responses

  1. So sad. I’ll try and call you tomorrow or Saturday.

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Wow. I had no idea. So sorry to hear this.

  3. Debbie-
    I am so sorry to hear about your brother. Several years ago my younger sister died. Losing a sibling is a strange, painful experience. It’s as though we never expected it.
    Mission Hill- so much so say. Firstly, I think you should have a celebration/memorial for all the good people and wonderful work all of you accomplished.
    I am always amazed at those schools that have rabbis and those that are left to be attacked.
    Losing a school is like losing a child.
    There are so many questions: how do we protect that which is different? In deed, Mission Hill was bullied!
    Reminds us as well as to what havoc those in position of power can put upon others with less or no power.
    My thoughts are with you in this difficult time.
    Take care
    Jill

  4. Debbie, you have been an inspiration to me my entire career. I was an undergrad and then a grad at Brown with Ted and have been an educator in NYC since 1994. I taught for 10 years at East Side with Jill. We need to keep fighting to change this outdated education system!

Leave a Reply to Jill Herman Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: