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JAMAICA PLAIN


SCHOOL CLOSING

by Morag Maclaghlan

With closing of Margaret Fuller, JP loses more than an elementary school

Many of the generations of the neighborhood's residents began their education at the Fuller School

Her eyes fill with tears. Although she has a thick accent from her native Puerto Rico, Amaryllis Nieto speaks perfect English-- a language she studied at the Margaret Fuller Elementary School in Jamaica Plain.

But beginning next fall, the Fuller school will no longer be an academic option for the neighborhood's children.

"This is a historic facility for me because I started there and wanted my son to start there," Nieto said. "Fuller is a very good academic base."

Nieto's son, Joseph Ruiz, is a kindergartner at Fuller. Although this is only Joseph's first year at the school, it is also his last. Fuller is one of five schools in the Boston Public School system closing its doors in June due to budget cuts.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Payzant said rising costs and decreasing revenue led him to recommend closing the schools. Payzant must reduce his budget by $81 million and closing the schools will save $5.8 million annually.

However, the decision will also displace students and staff and raise class sizes.

The size of class increased in 2003

Throughout the Boston Public School district, the number of students per class will jump from 22 to 25 in the kindergarten, first and second grade and from 25 to 28 in the third, fourth and fifth grade.

"I'm not comfortable raising class size, but we must do it under these circumstances," Payzant said. "We can't escape the fact that these cutbacks are going to hurt a lot."

The people most hurt by these changes are teachers, parents and students. The Fuller school's 16-staff members now wonder about their professional future and the school's 195 students and their parents worry about their academic future.

"We're resorting back to overcrowded schools where kids can't learn," Sharon Miller, whose daughter is a third grader at Fuller, said.

Superintendent Thomas Payzant talks about his tough decision to close five schools in the Boston Public School district.

Where learning is concerned, the Fuller school has historical significance. The building at 25 Glen Road has been a school for 111 years making it the oldest building used for educational purposes in the Boston Public School district.

This history means the school has deep roots and deep meaning to the residents of Jamaica Plain. Like Nieto, many generations of families have attended.

"Closing the school destroys the fabric of our community," Sonia Ibanez said. Ibanez attended the Fuller school as a child. Her 22-year-old son also went to Fuller and even had some of the same teachers. Ibanez and her husband, Felix, had hoped their youngest son, Felix Ibanez IV, would continue the family's tradition. That dream has been shattered and in its place emerges another goal.

"I want to know that I am going to get my first choice for my son's reassignment," Sonia Ibanez said. "Not my fourth or fifth choice, my first."

Fuller Facts

1. Oldest school in Boston Public Shool district, used for 111 years

2. One-third of teachers have taught at school for over 20 years

3. Student population: 68 percent African American, 24 percent Hispanic, 6 percent White and 2 percent Asian

4. 77 percent of students eligible for free lunch. School provides all students with free breakfast each morning

5. Students have a 95 percent attendance rate

6. 98 percent of students promoted to next grade annually

7. Only school in JP to offer free instrumental lessons to its fourth and fifth graders

8. Only school in JP to offer weekly Parent Coffee Hours

9. Partnerships with Leslie University, Wheelock College, the Franklin Park Zoo and the Boston Ballet

10. Awarded National Science Grant, a state literacy grant, a local grant for school culture and a ReadBoston grant

Parents of kindergarten through fourth graders must complete their child's application ranking each school in the West Zone of the Boston Public School district in order of preference. The West Zone encompasses Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, West Roxbury and Roslindale.

There are 27 different schools with seats available in the West Zone for the 2003-2004 academic school year. But for parents like the Ibanezs, no number of choices could make up for the convenience and sense of community found at the Fuller school. The couple enjoyed walking Felix to school in the mornings and picking him up each afternoon. Next year, Felix faces the possibility of being bussed to another school in Jamaica Plain or to a school in an entirely different neighborhood in Boston.

"We're extremely upset," Felix Ibanez said. "My wife has been doing a lot of research to figure out what the next best school is, but no school will be within walking distance."

Ibanez' son is one of about 58 students who enjoys the convenience of walking to the Fuller school each day. The building is nestled in a residential area of Jamaica Plain, but is also only a block away from the neighborhood's second largest commercial district on Washington Street.

This location is also ideal for the school's partnership with the Franklin Park Zoo, the only school in the West Zone to team up with the zoo. Fuller Principal Suzanne Federspiel said students visit the zoo to compliment lessons learned in their science classes. The zoo is less then two miles from Fuller's door step.

The Road to Reassignment

A community meeting was held for parents of Fuller students on April 10. School committee members, the superintendent and the staff of the West Zone Family Resource Center were on hand to answer parents' questions about which school would best fit their child's needs. Parents were also given a guide to Boston Public Schools detailing the programs each school in the West Zone offered to aid the decision making process.

"Closing the school destroys the fabric of our community"
Sonia Ibanez, former pupil and now mother of a pupil at Fuller

Maureen Lumley is the ombudsperson for the superintendent and on the staff of the resource center. She said parents come to the center to seek advice on a variety of school related concerns including special education, bilingual programs and transportation.

"People's primary concerns are where do we go from here and how will you take care of my child," said Lumley. "It's a sad time for all of us."

Carmen Rodriguez's son is a third grader at Fuller. He has a learning disability and Rodriguez said she has worked hard to get services for him at the Fuller school. But now she worries about what services will be available to him at a new school.

Rodriguez's situation is not unique. Aida Ramos, assistant program director for Cluster 6, said the Fuller school has 12 resource room students and eight all day special education students. Instead of reassignment on an individual basis, the superintendent has decided to relocate the entire special education class to the Ohrenberger Elementary School in West Roxbury, so as not to further alter the learning environment for these students.

However, resource room students, like Rodriguez's son, spend only half of the day outside of a regular classroom. These students will face individual assignments and start off the next academic year with an entirely new teacher in a new school with new classmates.

Rodriguez is also worried about her son's health. He suffers from chronic asthma, along with 14 other Fuller students, according to school nurse Cathy Couture. Rodriguez takes comfort in the fact that Couture is familiar with her son's medical history and that Rodriguez lives within walking distance of the school if a medical emergency were to arise. However, her son will more than likely be bussed to school next fall and encounter a school nurse unfamiliar with his medical past.

The Margaret Fuller Elementary School has served the Jamaica Plain community for over 100 years.

Social concerns are also on the minds of parents. Director of Student Assignment Jerry Burrell guarantees a seat for each child at another elementary school in the West Zone, but there are not enough seats at one particular school for an entire grade or class. Thus, students could face being split apart from their friends.
"Her friends will be dispersed," Miller said referring to her daughter. "She's sad."

Nieto shares Miller's frustration. Her son went through a tough transition from pre-school to kindergarten at the Fuller school this year and now he will have to adapt to yet another institution this fall.

"This past September through November was really hard for Joseph, but he got used to the Fuller school and his teachers," Nieto said. "Now that he has to start all over again I'm worried that he'll reflect on those old emotions and go through another difficult time."

Felix Ibanez agrees and stresses that becoming acquainted with a new school and staff will also be difficult for parents.
"All the teachers and kids at the Fuller school know you and you can speak to anyone at anytime," he said. "There are always parent activities, like math night every month; it's very close knit."
Nieto also praised the interaction between parents and staff of the Fuller school, especially the Friday morning Parent Coffee Hours
with Principal Federspiel.

"The principal meets with parents every Friday morning and that will be missing at another school," Nieto said.

Federspiel said that during those weekly meetings, parents voice any concerns they may have and also help her to plan events like concerts, field day and literacy night. However, a new topic has been dominating the most recent meetings.

     

Fuller Principal Suzanne Federspiel hopes to keep in touch with the school's students. Hear her explain her thoughts about the loss of her school.

"These parents are very worried about reassignments," Federspiel said. "I feel like we're going backwards because low enrollment provides us with the opportunity to reduce class sizes, not eliminate them."

Payzant said since 1998, elementary school enrollment in Boston Public Schools has leveled off and actually begun to drop.

Federspiel saw the decreasing numbers in K-5 students as an opportunity to reduce class sizes and provide students with increased individual attention from teachers. Facing budget cuts, the school committee saw the drop in enrollment as an opportunity to save money by closing several schools and reassigning students. Three of the five schools closing for the fall are elementary schools.

Although Burrel promises to inform parents of their child's reassignment by May 9, no amount of research or planning can guarantee a parent will get their first choice school for their child. Children are reassigned based on a lottery system. The better the number, the better the chance of the student being reassigned to his or her parents' top choice.

"It's a crap shoot," Dean Stevens, whose son is a kindergartner at Fuller, said. "It's all fate of chance."

Disappointed with their options, residents at April's community meeting expressed concerns about how the neighborhood would react to the loss of the school. The Census 2000 reported that the population in Jamaica Plain decreased more than any other neighborhood in Boston dropping by 7.3 percent. The high price of real estate in the area is one reason for the decrease, but residents said they now fear people might also consider relocating in search of a better school system.

Teachers Fear Next Academic Year

Yet, parents are not alone with their fears for the upcoming school year. The future of Federspiel and her staff is also in limbo. About one-third of the school's teachers have taught at Fuller for over 20 years. Their years of job security have been ripped out from underneath them.

Like the parents of Fuller students, each staff member must rank in order of preference which school to be reassigned. While students are reassigned based on a lottery system, teachers are dispersed based on seniority. Those teachers who have been in the Boston Public School System the longest will receive their first choice for reassignment. Federspiel said that provisional or non-permanent teachers would more than likely be laid off.

An empty Fuller school playground will become a common sight next fall when the school fails to reopen.

"We hope to know our reassignment before the end of the school year, but lay offs could drag this process out into the summer months," Federspiel said.

For Federspiel, the news of the school closing marks the end of a milestone in her life. She accepted the job as principal only three and a half years ago and it was the first time she had served a school in this capacity. As in a thick fog, Federspiel is unable to clearly see her future in the Boston Public School system.

"I have to sit down with the superintendent and discuss my options," she said. "Some principals may be retiring or I might have to look outside of this school system."

Federspiel said the aspect of her job she will miss the most is knowing all of the children at Fuller. She greets each one at 9 a.m. every morning and makes sure each student climbs on the bus safely in the afternoon. If she is forced to leave the Boston Public School system, she hopes to run into her students around the city.

Federspiel also hopes that the school committee will remain true to its promise to continue to use all of the buildings being closed for educational purposes.

Payzant has repeatedly said that none of the schools will be sold, but instead used to house other programs for the school district. Using the Fuller school as an international high school was one possibility he shared with residents during the community meeting.

"The school lacks a gym, a cafeteria and an auditorium, but other than that it's a great building," Federspiel said. "I hope it continues to be kept as a school."

As Federspiel, her staff and the parents and students of Fuller await their reassignment, a bumper sticker which hangs above her desk captures the sentiment of the community. It reads, "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber."

MORAG MACLAGHLAN

GO...

HEAR IT

- Principal Suzanne Federspiel talks about the loss of her school

- Superintendent Thomas Payzant talks about his tough decision to close five schools in the Boston Public School district.

SEE IT

- Margaret Fuller Elementary School

- Superintendent Thomas Payzant

- Principal Suzanne Federspiel

LINK IT

- Margaret Fuller Elementary School

- Boston Public Schools (BPS)

- Schools closing: information about BPS families

- Introducing BPS 2003

- Census 2000

 

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