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  • Writer's pictureJanet Ferone

Worlds Apart: Disparities in Educational Opportunity in a Three-Mile Radius

As an consultant who helps schools serve all their special needs students, I was saddened to hear about budget cuts to Boston Public Schools for three years in a row. I've seen firsthand how these cuts have led to reduction in services and increased class size, especially for our most vulnerable students in high poverty schools and with disabilities such as autism and depression/suicidality. Previously as an administrator in a Boston public high school, I experienced the devastating budget cuts fin 2015- losing teachers, paraprofessionals, the librarian, an administrator, and the leadership coordinator (in a leadership academy!). My fellow administrators and I spent hours analyzing the numbers and trying to cut in ways that would have the least impact on our students. In the midst of all this, an email came in from my son’s independent school alerting us to exam week, events which included “the student favorite, Barn Babies—a traveling petting zoo.” and “pre-exam massage night with herbal teas.” I received another email offering day students the opportunity to eat dinner on campus every night of the week, and thought of my students who often go without dinner or adequate nutrition due to poverty.

Don’t get me wrong, we chose to send our son to an independent school for the opportunities and I believe that as parents, we decide what we think is best for our children. But seeing on paper what we had to cut and how it will affect our student population, with 85% students qualifying as low-income and almost the same amount coming from homes where English isn’t the first language, with a vast majority students of color, along with cuts to students with disabilities, the contrast was too much. I grew up in Brooklyn, attended New York City public schools, and didn’t even know what an independent or private school was, and was the first in my family to attend college. Seeing the disparities at these two schools located just three miles apart made my head spin.

When my husband and I went to the kick-off of college planning for our son in his junior year, we enjoyed a lovely dinner with wine as the admissions director from Brown spoke to the mostly well-heeled group of parents. He referred to us as the “haves and have-lots” and that certainly rang true. The next morning we heard from the college counselors at Milton Academy, currently four with a fifth to be hired for a graduating class of less than 200. Cue to the public school – two guidance counselors for 550 students who handle college counseling, scheduling, standardized testing administration, social-emotional support, as opposed to our private school counselors whose only job is to focus on college counseling.

For years I’ve felt this disparity, working at inner-city high schools with the most challenged students – those with disabilities, many with histories of abuse, poverty, and psychiatric hospitalizations and many with autism. When my son was accepted at Milton Academy and we spent the morning at this esteemed independent school, then drove several miles to my inner-city public high school. After a morning of long stemmed strawberries and monogrammed napkins in a wood-paneled library, I entered the school with graffiti and litter and sounds of a student fight in the dingy hallways. I felt synapses in my brain exploding.

Hearing about the potential impact of a half million-dollar cut to our school and the heartfelt testimony as students, staff and families protest at school committee meetings and other public forums was even more heartbreaking. A parent asked “Would a suburban school ever have to imagine their high school without a librarian?” A teacher lamented that every day she receives at least one request for a crowdfunding campaign to support necessary items for a public schools. I think of my own efforts to raise funds for my students with autism and those with depression and anxiety. 

Boston schools faced a $50 million deficit, yet General Electric was welcomed to Boston with $25 million dollar property tax break and an additional $151 million in city and state tax incentives. (In return for all of these tax breaks, GE directly employed 600 people) Then Boston city councilor Tito Jackson, a staunch advocate for fully funding schools, said the reason GE choose Boston’s workforce is due to its excellent schools, which were sacrificed for corporate handouts.

 Students at BCLA have been taught self-advocacy and leadership, and led the charge to speak out against these budget cuts at hearings and school committee meetings. When students city-wide organized a walk-out to the Boston Common to protest budget cuts and tax breaks to GE, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh insulted them by claiming adults must be behind the protest. Yet days later, a Boston Globe headline stated “After Student Walkouts, Walsh Moves To Block Budget Cuts” with the article elaborating that “days after thousands of students walked out to protest budget cuts, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Thursday that he plans to announce that Boston high schools will be spared the controversial reductions that endangered popular programs and teacher jobs.”Our feelings of elation were quickly doused, as we learned that once again the mayor had insulted our students, as “no cuts to high schools” resulted in only restoring $133,000 to our $650,000 deficit, effectively putting us a half-million dollars short and not sparing us reductions in programming or teacher jobs. 

As I drove the three miles from BCLA to pick up my son at Milton Academy, I heard a news story on the radio that a Brookings Institution study named Boston the No. 1 city in the United States for income inequality. As I pulled up to the stately buildings where no one would ever suggest they do without a librarian or increase class size to make do with fewer teachers, my heart cries for my urban students who will suffer from an increasing wage gap if they continue to be shortchanged in resources. The institutional racism that allows this to happen to a school system with primarily student of color is a travesty for all.

I think about two middle-of-the night texts I received during the initial rounds of these cuts: one from my son at a speech tournament in California saying he made the finals and another from a student’s mom saying he had been shot and was in critical condition. Seeing these two texts next to each other again highlighted the reality of the disparities students face based on resources, class, socioeconomic status and race.

Boston promotes itself as a world-class city, seeking to lure Amazon to locate its second headquarter here. Mayor Walsh, Boston city councilors, school committee and Supt. Chang cannot continue this travesty to of disparities in educational opportunities for Boston youth!

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