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A Tale of Two Schools: A Failing Boston School Building and the Impact on Two Communities

A failing building with a leaky roof was the home of two schools in Allston: The Jackson Mann and the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. On June 27th, the Jackson Mann was closed, but the Horace Mann will remain in the same structure for at least another year. This is a tale of two schools.

A TALE OF TWO SCHOOLS

You might call it the tale of two schools. Because under one roof-- and a leaky one at that-- the Jackson Mann School was permanently shut down on June 27—its students and staff dispersed, its supplies transported across the city. But, there is another school in the same failing building. The Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing will remain in the same structure for at least another year.

The Jackson Mann Horace Mann complex has the highest buildings needs score in the entire school system. That’s BPS-speak for the building in the worst shape that impacts the most students. Eventually, the building will be torn down. The plan is to build a new one at that location. But the Horace Mann school population is filled with students who are some of the most vulnerable, who require the most services. They need a very specialized learning environment. And the Boston Public Schools has nowhere else to put these learners until a swing space is retrofitted - hopefully in fall 2023.

The decision to keep the building open for one school while closing it for the other has left people confused and outraged.

“Good planning, of which we’ve not had a lot in the Boston schools for a while, should have been able to figure out an alternative," Larry DiCara, a former Boston city councilor and author of a memoir on busing and the Boston Public Schools said.

Meanwhile, it is the families who pay the price.

JACKSON MANN: WHAT WAS THE PLAN?

Christian, a third-grade student with autism gets off the bus for one of the very last times as a Jackson Mann student.

NBC10 Boston
Christian was a student at Jackson Mann until the shutdown at the end of the school year.

"I loved it for like years," Christian told NBC10 Boston. "I’m working with my after-school teacher Miss Laura. I’m going to miss her."

While the building was failing, what happened inside was a success, according to Christian’s mom and other families we spoke with.

Jenny Millien said her son thrived at Jackson Mann with its strong special ed program.

"Through Jackson Mann, he’s had an amazing abundance of resources." And she was intentional in choosing it.

I get emotional thinking about it because it is so much upheaval.

Jenny Millien, parent

"Jackson Mann is K -8. And that was the biggest thing for us, that he would be in a solid place. He's a kid who is, routine based. So it was just really devastating." Millien gets choked up talking about it. "It’s overwhelming. We found our home."

For Millien it feels unfair to be pushed out until the building closes for everyone. "I’m really upset at that. I get emotional thinking about it because it is so much upheaval."

Rising eighth graders wonder too. "I wish we could stay for another year so I can graduate," said Nushrath Ismail, while acknowledging some of the building flaws. "In one of my science classes, the ceiling was like falling apart and there was leakage and we had to use a garbage can to hold the water in."

NBC10 Boston was not allowed inside the building until after the Jackson Mann closed for good – and then for only about an hour. In the spaces we saw, there were numerous signs of water damage and open classrooms without doors.

NBC10 Boston
Water damage inside the Jackson Mann school building.

MESSAGING AT MANN

The building problems provided hints the school might close. But the messaging changed over the years.

"What we saw at the Jackson Mann previous to this year with the previous administration is a failure of planning and communication," said Will Austin, who runs the Boston Schools Fund, an organization aimed at delivering high quality education in every neighborhood of Boston.

"The way that it was closed resulted in a lot of disruption for families...these things are all knowable. Like we knew the Jackson Mann was in bad shape in 2016, and you should have known they’re going to close the building."

But plans to close Jackson Mann didn’t become public until 2019. That April, a top BPS official wrote to Jean Powers, a Jackson Mann parent and activist "as of now we are planning to close the Jackson/Mann facility but not the school."

"A lot of us stayed here thinking that we would have more time here. I mean, we were told two years ago thinking that, you know, we would stay here until another place came for us. But that didn't happen," says Jackson Mann teacher Christine O’Keefe.

A lot of us stayed here thinking that we would have more time here.

Christine O'Keefe

Later that April, Interim Superintendent Laura Perile wrote the school community to say the building was technically safe, but the "level of work is so extensive and time-consuming that the safest course of action, long-term, is to vacate the building."

But the exact plan and timeline were vague.

"If you know that a building is in bad shape, you have to communicate that clearly to the community and really clearly communicate a plan," argued Austin.

Instead, families didn’t learn the school would shut down for good until this winter, dispersing the students to schools around the district.

"I think," explained Austin, "that when you don’t bring people into the solutions, you can’t have trust. If families feel like they weren’t engaged in the solutions, they’re going to feel like they don’t have the full story."

The Boston public schools refused to make anyone available for an interview about the Horace Mann Jackson Mann plans. Instead, they offered a statement saying in part:

“After two years of meetings and conversations with families, BPS decided to close the school because it was not a safe learning space for students.

"The City of Boston’s Public Facilities Department (PFD) commissioned a full-scale external engineering review of all the building's systems in 2019. The engineering report’s findings suggested that keeping the site open long-term is not a viable option. The district had enough seats in other schools in Allston-Brighton for students who live there and enough seats in other schools closer to home for non-Allston-Brighton students. About 50% of the students at the Jackson Mann live in the Allston Brighton Neighborhood and there were local seats at other schools available for them."

HORACE MANN PLANS

The Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing currently has fewer than 100 students. Ranging from K-12, they also serve children from beyond the City of Boston. And now they are staying put in a deficient building for at least another year. Earlier this year, Mayor Michelle Wu released her Green New Deal plan for the future of Boston Public Schools. As part of that, a wing of the Charles Edwards School in Charlestown will be retrofitted, at a cost of more than $31 million to be a swing space for the Horace Mann. The location is a former middle school that had been promised to the community of Charlestown for an early childhood center. Now they will share the building.

"That's why we had to fight literally the community to be able to move in there temporarily," said Charlie Kim, a Horace Mann parent and co-chair of the school's site council. "And by temporary, we’re talking seven or plus years. That’s the final place for a lot of these students."

Founded in 1869, Horace Mann has a rich legacy of innovation for the deaf and hard of hearing community. Kim is pleased about the upgraded facility.

Others we spoke with off camera raised concerns about the commute to Charlestown, six miles away. And through an interpreter, the first deaf principal of Horace Mann makes it clear where she wants to end up.

"We look forward to a permanent home back here in Allston/Brighton," said Dr. Michelle Eisan-Smith.

The journey to this swing space and the fact that this school community remains in this building is frustrating at best.

"They blamed COVID," said Kim. "They blamed budgeting, planning, all these things. But the bottom line is they just didn't move when they had to move. They were very indecisive. They were showing us sites, the Timilty. They showed us the Edwards facility…. If you knew about how many times that was given to us, offered, then taken away, then offered again and then taken away," said Kim. "We should always assume that folks will advocate for their kids. They should," said Austin. "But it should be done in a way where the process is clear. Right? The rules are clear. The planning is clear. So people can all engage."

Last year, Horace Mann applied for school building assistance to get a new facility. The application notes "many building deficiencies" including leaks and obsolete equipment. It states the cost of ongoing "inspection maintenance, and repair is unsustainable." And yet, the City of Boston did not give the application the highest priority designation.

What is clear now is that a new facility for The Horace Mann School is part of the plan. The location and budget remain unclear. But as part of the Green New Deal, there is $150,000 in the budget to explore a permanent site for a new Horace Mann.

This is the statement we got from BPS about Horace Mann:

"Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is moving to a new swing space location beginning in the school year 2023-24. A swing space is a space that a school moves into while permanent space is being built or restructured to appropriately fit the program. Because the Horace Mann School services a special population of our students, we needed to find them a swing space. To support the needs of the HM students, renovations to the swing space (Edwards Building in Charlestown) needed to be made before the school could move location. Working with the City, it was determined that it was OK for the HM school to remain at its current location until their swing space was ready."

A LITTLE HISTORY LESSON

When Jackson Mann Horace Mann opened in 1975, the Boston Globe described a school where educators taught racially diverse classes of students, both mainstream and special needs, all together.

"The goal was to construct large school buildings in neighborhoods where Black children and white children could both walk to school," said DiCara.

But did the building itself interfere with that success?

"Buildings were built big and thick because there was urban rioting in the sixties and people were interested in being sure that buildings could be fortresses," explained DiCara.

More than 60% of the 120 buildings in the Boston Public Schools were built before 1950. Some are older than Fenway Park. But it is the facilities built in the 60s and 70s that have failed the most. The West Roxbury education complex which opened in 1976 was deemed unsafe and closed in 2019.

"The 1970s buildings in the district are really uniquely designed," said Austin, "and use a lot of materials we don't use anymore."

"In some cases, there were also efforts," said DiCara "to have open classrooms, which sounds really great at the Harvard School of Education, but doesn’t really sound very good if you're a parent of a small child."

Austin agrees.

"That was a bad idea. And we spent a lot of money undoing all of that."

A LITTLE MATH LESSON

"We have as many buildings, even a little bit more than we did 20 years ago. And we have significantly less kids," said Austin.

In 2001-2002 more than 62,000 kids enrolled in BPS. Twenty years later it's just over 46,000. That’s a whopping 26% decline.

In 2015 then Boston Mayor Marty Walsh rolled out “Build BPS" - $1 billion to upgrade schools, close some and build others.

"Construction involves timetables, specific projects, resource and implementation. Build BPS never produced that," said Austin.

"There was never a set process of saying over the next 10 to 15 years, this is what we are going to do. And so that resulted in school communities kind of wondering every year, are we going to get closed this year?"

This June at Jackson Mann, the answer was yes.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said teacher Christine O’Keefe. "I’m devastated. We’re leaving our families and all our friends."

And the families will deal with the stress of new transitions.

"I’ve always been comfortable in knowing he's good where he's at so I can thrive where I’m at," said Jenny Millien, whose resilience will be put to the test once again.

"We're going to make the best of this. And Christian has always thrived regardless. So I’m just hopeful that we continue that streak," she added.

There are more than 20 grade configurations in the Boston Public Schools system. BPS is now working eliminate middle schools in order to cut down on confusion, align with exam schools and create fewer transitions for kids.

ELIMINATING THE MIDDLE SCHOOL

Guthrie’s parents moved from Somerville to Mattapan so their son could start pre- kindergarten this fall in the Boston public schools.

"I'm excited for him to go to a school where probably, you know, as a white kid, he'll be in the minority. I think that that would be good for him and for us," said future BPS mom Andrea Wells.

We were there last spring when Guthrie’s mom learned her son was assigned to the Haley Pilot school-- their second choice. When Boston parents pick schools for their children, they find all kinds of grade configurations. In fact, there are more than 20.

Animation of the different grade breakdowns at Boston Public Schools
NBC10 Boston

To limit these options, cut down on confusion, align with exam schools and create fewer transitions for kids, BPS is working to eliminate middle schools. It’s one solid legacy from the Build BPS plan. Two middle schools closed for good this June: the James Timilty in Roxbury and the Washington Irving in Roslindale. On the other side of that equation, schools like the James Otis in East Boston recently expanded to include the sixth grade.

"It’s been such a success and our parents couldn't be more thrilled," said Paula Goncalves, principal of the James Otis Elementary School in East Boston.

The goal is to move to a model where schools go from Pre-K to 6th grade and then 7th through 12th.

“We want to make sure that every single kid in the City of Boston has access to high-quality schools," said Austin, "and we do that through supporting schools like the Otis to expand and serve more kids over time."

Right now, the Boston Schools Fund is working with 12 schools across the city to add sixth grades.

"The best way to have the city progress over time and reach educational equity is to send more and more kids to good schools,” said Austin.

On a tour of the Otis, Principal Goncalves stops by a third-grade classroom and points to a sign on the door.

"This is the college of Class of 2035." At another door she tells us, “We are a school of 415 students. Lots of us classrooms are half the size of this classroom, and they have 20 students in them."

THE GREEN NEW DEAL

As part of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s $2 billion “Green New Deal,” the Otis is expected to get a new, modern and much improved building just a couple of blocks away.

“It will provide us with a state-of-the-art auditorium, hopefully a science lab for our students, a Spanish lab for our students, a music room, an art room,” says Goncalves. “We've also asked that it be a community space for families to gather if they need a place to go to utilize technology.”

Wu said we need a large-scale shift in how we manage our school facilities. The city launched a website you can look at to see how upgrades and changes are going at your own school. She’s working with the city and BPS to hire 25 people to manage building projects. They are looking at creating new K-to-6 schools in Roxbury, Dorchester/Mattapan, and Allston/Brighton. It’s a process that will involve merging school communities.

"School closures are traumatic for families, traumatic for educators. No one wants to do them. But our leaders also have to tell people the truth. And the simple truth is we have too many school buildings and most of them are old. And so it's going to take leadership to fix that problem and time to fix that problem," said Austin.

School closures are traumatic for families, traumatic for educators. No one wants to do them. But our leaders also have to tell pepople the truth.

Will Austin

The first step in the process, “make sure that all the data collected is correct and accurate and relevant.” After that, said Austin, "you need a real community process, where you hear directly from people. What do they want in their schools and why? So you're being responsive to the needs of students, families and educators. Then you have to look at the mechanics of all this. Where are kids? Where are they most densely populated? What schools are under-enrolled? Which schools are over enrolled? Which means that more families want to send their kids to them and then making a decision about how you put buildings in the right places for the right number of kids. That is the work."

Again, the BPS would not make anyone available for an interview for our story. This is what they shared about the Green New Deal.

  • BPS is a partner with the City in the Green New Deal.
  • The Green New Deal for BPS allows us to provide the facilities quality guarantee all students deserve. This includes new buildings, major renovations, improving and adapting learning spaces.
  • We engage the community in conversations about the buildings and garner feedback to help inform the design and space.
  • The District and the City have committed to maintaining the current Jackson Mann and Horace Mann school site as a K-6 School for the Allston Brighton Community.
  • There will be a process for determining which current school (s) will move into that new facility once it's complete.
  • The first step for the HM/JM space is to do a design study to determine what the needs of the new school or schools will be. We are exploring options.

RALLYING FOR AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Last spring in Mattapan, families, educators, and community leaders gathered for a celebration outside the P.A. Shaw, a neighborhood K- 3 school. After pressure from students, parents and teachers, the Shaw will expand in the fall to include two fourth grade classrooms

Amid chants of “Hey Hey, Ho Ho we want the Shaw to grow,” the community made it clear, they love this place and they want to see a fifth and sixth grade added in the years ahead. But the future remains unclear.

Click to hear the community chant calling for an expansion of the P.A. Shaw Elementary School

Will the building expand or merge with other school communities in a new facility? It’s one of many hard questions the new superintendent Mary Skipper will have on her plate when she begins her job in the coming months. Meanwhile, families across the city await the fall and the challenge, promise and excitement of a new school year.

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