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Monday, March 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Boston's breakthrough schools

BOSTON — Could this city's "pilot schools" — a cross between charter schools and regular city system schools — signal a "tipping point" in the long struggle to reshape urban America's embattled public-education systems?

Paul Grogan, author of the 2001 book "Comeback Cities" and now president of the Boston Foundation, believes so. He predicts that pilot schools, part of the formal school system but granted charter-like powers over budgets, hiring and curriculum, may prove the missing key to overcoming stifling bureaucracy and conquering "the final frontier of inner-city revitalization."

For a flavor of pilot-school culture, I visited the four-year-old Boston Community Leadership Academy (BCLA), formerly a problem-plagued district high school with low academic scores. But when headquarters moved to close the school, the recently appointed principal, Nicole Bahnam, her teachers and parents protested vehemently and asked for pilot-school status.

Headquarters agreed. With help from the Boston-based Center for Collaborative Education, Bahnam and her staff rewrote their entire school mission to focus on a rigorous academic experience and personalized attention — in Bahnam's words, "a program driven by kids' needs, not by any bureaucracy."

It was a tough shift, Bahnam admits, "from running a school top down to working with my people. But I'll never run any other kind of school again. You have accountability, autonomy. I value my people, my staff. And we're together in our goal of getting students out of the cycle of poverty and violence — because they are capable."

Of BCLA's 393 students, 71 percent are from poor families, 90 percent minority. But walk the school's hallways, listen in classrooms, and you can't miss an atmosphere of engaged faculty interest and student seriousness. The pilot schools' big aim: graduates qualifying for college. A recent study shows pilot-school students outperforming regular Boston public students on several uniform tests.

Frank Pantano, a BCLA English instructor in his 28th year of Boston teaching, told me he welcomes the shift: "I feel honored, valued here. I'm on the faculty-parent-student governing committee and feel I have some control of what's going on."

Boston's first-in-nation experiment with pilot schools began in 1995 when Mayor Thomas Menino and the Boston Teachers Union, worried about the growing popularity of charter schools, decided to allow limited numbers of pilot schools as long as two-thirds of any school's faculty voted in favor, and the union could veto any new school.

Fifteen pilots did start. But Grogan, assuming the Boston Foundation presidency in 2001, found the momentum toward pilots stalled — even though principals and faculty in the first 15 were innovating enthusiastically, freeing themselves of the micromanagement of the central bureaucracy and the minutiae-packed (260 pages) teachers union contract.

So the foundation offered $15,000 planning grants to schools interested in becoming pilots. A "bidders conference" was held and 40 schools sent representatives. "That was roughly a third of the system, with principals, teachers, parents present — I thought of it as a jailbreak," says Grogan.

Four new pilots resulted. But the teachers union president, Richard Stutman, vetoed a fifth in 2004, objecting that teachers were working extra hours without extra pay. Another likely reason: the union leadership's belief that member support is based on years of struggle for rights, hours, salary, length of school day and grievance procedures — most of which, salary excepted, don't apply in pilot schools.

The logjam was broken last month after Menino intervened, negotiations resumed, and the union agreed to let seven more pilots form as long as uncompensated teachers' hours are limited to 100 a year. The union is even going to start its own pilot school. The Boston Foundation is continuing its activist role, providing $1.5 million to support the new schools' planning and implementation.

Grogan admits the foundation, by urging both Menino and the union to move forward, has sailed into a strategy of "productive discomfort" — seeking to catalyze change rather than simply making "safe" grants.

Veteran Rochester, N.Y., Teachers Union president and reform advocate Adam Urbanski has been in Boston with a warning: Don't call the pilot schools "experiments." Freedom and autonomy, empowering parents and teachers and students — "If it's good for pilots, why not for all schools?"

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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