Soon after the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, the Boston Public Schools, with cooperation from the Boston Teachers Union, opened Pilot Schools. I was co-director of the first Pilot school, Fenway High School, and we were excited by similar schools in NYC, most notably Central Park East Elementary and Secondary Schools. We recruited Deborah Meier, the founder of both, to come to Boston to start a Pilot school. Harvard’s Vito Perrone and Ted Sizer, of the Coalition of Essential Schools and a former Harvard Dean, joined many others to help Deborah carry out her vision that a public school’s primary task is to prepare its students to be fully active citizens of a democracy, with habits of mind that support democracy.
The school Debbie founded, the Mission Hill School, was based on simple democratic principles. Those closest to the children, the teachers, should make most of the decisions about curriculum, assessment, scheduling, structure, calendar, budget, and governance. Before high-stakes standardized tests traded imagination for regimented rigor, Mission Hill established a reputation that garnered visits from hundreds of educators from around the globe over the last 25 years. A film http://www.ayearatmissionhill.com/ was made about the school.
Well before many schools adopted student-led conferences, Mission Hill was showcasing how five-year-old children could effectively describe their work to family members. (Now, BPS recommends this as best practice for “transformation” schools — those schools in need of improvement). Mission Hill led the way for graduation by portfolio and exhibition. 8th graders presented skills and knowledge across the disciplines to an outside committee. Practitioners and researchers came to Mission Hill to understand these innovations as well as how to develop multi-age classrooms or long-term school wide themes.
At a time when schools increasingly became driven by test preparation, Mission Hill has fought to maintain the kind of progressive approach usually only found in high-priced private schools. Like Fenway High and Boston Arts Academy, Mission Hill sought to serve a diverse but representative population from Boston. That meant there was racial as well as socio-economic diversity. Progressive schools showed that they could serve many different populations at once.
The Pilot Schools, which became a signature reform initiative of then Superintendent Payzant, were intended to be as autonomous from BPS as possible, including having their own agreement about working conditions. Across the country, educators and policy makers have used the model reform work of the Pilot Schools to improve schools.
But in recent years, the pressure to conform to district mandates has risen. Mission Hill’s innovative approach to curriculum was designed specifically to be compatible with the school’s mission, but last year BPS required the school to follow the standard BPS curriculum. This fall, just days before the start of the year, both co-leaders were suddenly put on administrative leave. Two other teachers were put on administrative leave after the second day of school.
There are allegations and investigations, and we know everyone involved has been cautioned not to speak about what led to these actions. But in a tight knit school community, there is a profound sense of confusion and fear on the part of teachers, parents and certainly children.
Parents are urging the district to:
honor Mission Hill’s autonomies and hire appropriate staff so that the school can remain viable and our students’ needs can be met. The district has chosen to remove autonomies and not replace staff who were put on leave using events under investigation as an excuse to further weaken our school.
It is entirely possible that BPS has used an incident to eliminate the Mission Hill that the founders had in mind.
The school may now be seen as a threat to the district’s view of how much independence a single school should have.
All schools have areas in need of improvement. Mission Hill is no exception. However, losing a valuable and unique model of democratic schooling, especially at a time when democracy is threatened in schools more than ever, would be a tremendous loss.
Is it possible that there is another narrative at play?