Youth Voice Project provides Feedback for BPS Strategic Implementation Plan
Pop-up ‘kitchen table’ talks seek passersby’s ideas on BuildBPS
By JULE PATTISON-GORDON | August 3, 2016
Boston Public Schools staff gathered around a table on the Dudley Town Common in Roxbury one late afternoon last week, equipped with popsicles and short surveys printed on colorful paper for those passersby willing to stop and chat. The event was first of seven planned “BuildBPS Kitchen Table Talks” — pop-up forums designed to capture local feedback through casual conversations and provide information on the school department’s ten-year facilities and educational vision.
“The idea is, the best conversations happen around the kitchen table,” said Ben Vainer, director of City Hall to Go, which launched the events together with BPS. City Hall To Go is a department aimed at providing City Hall-based services to farther locations and runs the traveling city services truck.
Holding conversations were BPS members Makeeba McCreary, chief of staff; Danielle Crystal, deputy chief of staff; Michele Shannon, chief of schools and Carolyn MacNeil, ombudsperson; as well as, from the city, Vanier and Rahn Dorsey, city chief of education.
Noraitza Ruiz recommended replacing grading with competency-based evaluation. Banner photo.
The BuildBPS plan addresses facilities investments as well as curriculum and instructional reforms. The assessment includes buildings’ abilities to support educational programs as well as provide safety, adequate outdoor offerings and infrastructure for current and future technology. Vainer said officials wanted respondents to dream big now, and that the financial aspect of the plan would be determined later.
Even ideas not specifically about physical infrastructure have an influence on what buildings should look like, Vainer said.
“If you want more professional development opportunities, does that mean you need more space for things to happen? It all has implications [for facilities master plan],” Vainer told the Banner.
BPS and the mayor’s Education Cabinet are working with Cambridge-based architecture and planning firm Symmes, Maini & McKee Associates to develop recommendations for submission to Mayor Martin Walsh, School Superintendent Tommy Chang and the BPS School Committee by fall 2016. Others involved with the project include New Vistas Designs For Learning, Mass Insight Education, MGT of America, WSP Group/Parsons Brinkerhoff, Pinck & Co. and the Boston School Committee, according to information posted online by BPS. According to information provided at the event, approximately two-thirds of the 128 school buildings were constructed prior to World War II.
Youth from a farm stand a few paces away were among the first to stop by the kitchen table to talk. The event drew a mix of visitors, including adults, current and former BPS students, a youth activist and members of Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Survey-takers were asked to write down three things that every BPS school should have, as well as their connection to BPS, understanding of BuildBPS and recommended methods for engagement around BPS issues. While press releases about the kitchen table talks were sent to newspapers and word posted on social media and BPS’s website, Vainer said part of the event’s goal was to reach youth and parents not already part of those circles.
Responses from passersby were wide-ranging, including requests for in-school classroom supply stores, theaters and basketball teams, early exposure to a variety of careers (for instance, architecture), bigger school budgets, afterschool programs, functioning libraries, updated books, smaller class sizes and vending machines to raise additional school revenue. Among the most common recommendations: healthier lunches and teaching techniques that embrace diverse learning styles and promote project-based learning.
Versatile instruction styles
Maya Ochoa-Blanco, a rising junior at Boston Community Leadership Academy and longtime BPS student, was among several who suggested a pedagogical shift from testing to project-based learning. Ochoa-Blanco said it would be more helpful to have a large project to work on throughout the year that allowed in-depth exploration of one area than touching lightly on a broader range.
Noraitza Ruiz, a 2013 graduate of Boston Day and Evening Academy who currently works at Boston Opportunity Youth Collaborative, recommended replacing grading with competency-based evaluation. Under such a system, students who do not complete a class do not get failing marks but rather the opportunity to finish next semester or by doing a project, she said.
Youth have insufficient involvement in school decision making, said Louis Morales, a member of the Youth Voice Project. The YVP is a subgroup of the Opportunity Youth Collaborative that performs research and outreach to advise the OYC on methods for engaging Boston’s young adults. Morales called for implementing student governments, adding that he has attended three BPS schools, none of which had such a body in any active form.
Although there is the Boston Student Advisory Council, Morales said that it was useful but limited. Each school has one representative appointed to BSAC to engage in system-wide decisions. This is a large amount of influence put on one student, who may not be known to all students or best reflect their voice, Morales said. Such an approach also does not address a need for youth influence on school-level decisions.
Morales also said there often is a disconnect between youth and teachers. This especially is common, he said, when educators are from the suburbs and interpret a student acting out as an indicator of gang involvement, not as a sign that the person is struggling to cope with problems. Ruiz also recommended increasing counselor staffing to one counselor per 200 students.
BPS’ Danielle Crystal said that work is underway to train educators to better understand students’ backgrounds and culture, but that it is a slow process.
Carrington Moore, a high school-to-career manager at Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, who spoke personally and not on behalf of DSNI, called for greater budgets and accountability. But, he said, the kitchen table conversation was a good start. Morales agreed.