Merger Furor – Parents express concern over plans to combine Alighieri and Umana

Parents listen and testify at Monday night’s meeting at the paris street Gym. Below, Boston public schools Academic superintendent joe shea at Monday nights meeting concerning the future of the successful dante Alighieri Elementary school in East Boston.

By all accounts the Dante Alighieri Elementary School in East Boston is a success story. MCAS test scores and enrollment are up, there’s strong parental involvement and because of the small size of the building classes are relatively small compared to other elementary schools here.

So parents at the school are finding hard to believe that Boston Public Schools (BPS) wants to merge the Alighieri with the Mario Umana Middle School Academy to create a K-8 program and boost the Umana’s overall low test scores. BPS Superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson made the announcement a few days back and said the merger and some school closing are part of her plan to close a looming $63 million budget gap BPS is facing.

At a meeting held Monday night at the Paris Street Gym, parent of Alighieri students were enraged and confused by the potential break up of what should be used as a model school for the rest of BPS.

“How do you justify closing a school that has made significant progress over the past five years and merge it with a school that hasn’t made the same progress?” asked parent Nicole Dasilva. “Shouldn’t BPS fix the problems at the Umana first?”

Dr. Carol Johnson arrived at her decision to close and merge schools citywide by using a criteria that included picking schools with low test scores and schools that were not appealing to parents when making their choices for students assignments.

By his own admission, BPS Academic Superintendent Joe Shea said the Alighieri/Umana merger recommendation was unique because it did not fit in the criteria applied to other schools recommended for a merger or closure because the Alighieri had rising test scores and rising enrollment. Shea said that because the Umana was moving towards a K-8 model it made sense from a financial perspective to try a merger with the Umana because BPS would be unable to expand the successful programs at the school due to the limited size of the current building on Gove Street.

“When we see a school like the Alighieri showing significant growth we like to expand the school in order to make it more accessible to more families,” said Shea. “However, the size and age of the school building could not accommodate any expansion there so we saw room for growth at the Umana.”

The cost saving for BPS if the merger is accepted by the School Committee would be only $293,924, a small fraction of the $63 million budget shortfall.

“All we hear are numbers and figures and dollars and cents but no one is talking about the children or the parents that are going to be affected,” said one angry mother at Monday’s meeting. “We have worked hard to build up this school and all the teachers and parents and students know each other, it’s like a family and now you want to take that away from us.”

A lot of parents worried that the Alighieri would lose its positive identity and close knit intimacy once the 134 K-5 students enter a large campus with nearly 600 middle school students.

“It won’t be the same school,” said Dasilva. “Why do we have to suffer because the Umana isn’t flourishing? We’ve done our job as parents and teachers at the Alighieri. Why should we have to sacrifice our school and what we’ve worked for?”

A quick comparison of the last grade students are able to attend at the Alighieri and Umana, grades 5 and 8 respectively, shows why many parents are very concerned.

In Science, 30 percent of the Alighieri’s 5th graders scored proficient or better in science, up from 10 percent last year (the state average was 53 percent). In English Language Arts, 60 percent of students scored proficient or better, up from 35 percent last year (the state average was 63 percent). In Math 35 percent of students scored proficient or better, up from 20 percent last year (the state average was 55 percent).

At the Umana, only 4 percent of 8th graders scored proficient or better in Science, up from two percent last year. In English Language Arts 48 percent of students scored proficient or better, down from 49 percent the year before. In Math 23 percent scored proficient or better, up from 7 percent last year.

“The school is just not there yet,” said another parent at the meeting. “They need to fix their own problems before they take on a whole other school.”

The BPS School Committee will hold a meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 8 at English High School at 6 p.m. on the issue of closures and mergers and parents are encouraged to go and testify at the hearing.

The Committee will vote on the matter the following Wednesday (Dec. 15) at English High School.

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