Late one afternoon early this month, the Mission Hill School in Boston was put to death by the Boston School Committee. The execution was live streamed, and I watched every painful minute of it. The outcome was no surprise because at the BSC’s meeting a week earlier, the members heard a report from a law firm hired by the Boston School Superintendent, Dr. Brenda Cassellius, to investigate the school’s handling of parent charges that it mishandled reports of student-on-student bullying and sexual abuse and failed to address the needs of their special needs students. The resulting 180+ page report concluded that the school should be closed to avoid further harm to children.
Before I go any further in my account of the protracted battle that resulted in this nuclear option, I have to explain why anyone should care about this local battle. Mission Hill School was founded by the renowned educator Deborah (Debbie) Meier in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, where my wife and I first dipped our toes in political waters by canvassing for Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election. Prior to her arrival in Boston, Debbie had founded Central Park East School (CPE) in New York which had achieved a national reputation as a beacon of innovation at both the elementary and secondary level. With CPE at the core, a whole network of innovative small schools took root in New York City.
Long before I met Debbie, two of her books – The Power of Their Ideas and In Schools We Trust — spoke to me in ways which made most books about education seem dead on the page. She articulates a vision of democratic public education that is informed by her own political activism. She respects and values teachers, children and parents in equal measure and invites them to exercise their voices in how schools are run and what they stand for.
Among the many notable accomplishments of CPE were two that became cornerstones of the work in Mission Hill. First was a system of evaluating student learning called Performance-Based Assessment which replaced traditional paper and pencil testing with requirements that students demonstrate what they learned by applying the acquired knowledge and presenting the results to panels of judges which might include members of the school community or other knowledgeable adults. It’s a process that’s time-consuming and inefficient but it embodies important principles of authentic learning. A second piece that united the work at Mission Hill and at CPE was a list of “habits of mind” that teachers should attempt to instill in their students. In the words of one writer, “Habits of Mind are dispositions that are skillfully and mindfully employed by characteristically intelligent, successful people when they are confronted with problems, the solutions to which are not immediately apparent.” Meier condensed these habits of mind under three headings:
- Significance (why it is important)
- Perspective (what is the point of view)
- Evidence (how do you know)
- Connection (how does it apply)
- Supposition (what if it were different)
Tom and Amy Valens captured the essence of Mission Hill’s uniqueness in a series of short films called A Year at Mission Hill which were later combined into a single film called Good Morning Mission Hill. These films document the unique environment of project-based learning conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect among teachers and students. The school operated with a considerable gift of autonomy granted by its designation as a pilot school in the Boston Public schools. These schools exercised some of the freedom granted to charter schools but intentionally remained within the system, with all its teachers members of the union, rejecting the explicit anti-union bias of its charter school counterparts.
Debbie’s retirement from the directorship did not mark a notable shift in the school’s philosophy. Her successors were people who came from within the school and were steeped in its founding vision. I encountered a number of them each year at a conference of progressive educators which Debbie had helped found. I was impressed by their dedication and their honesty in describing the successes and challenges the school faced. Just as was the case with CPE, the central administration was constantly attempting to find ways to claw back some of the autonomy granted to these innovative outliers who were seen as a threat to the central control and to the quest for uniformity across the system.
Then, over the last five or six years, charges by parents began to emerge that the school was not safe for their children. I will admit that more of my knowledge of the school was rooted in its earlier years before they moved, somewhat against their wishes, to a new community and were expected, as I understand it, to receive a disproportionate number of special needs students. What was hard to grasp were the simultaneous views of the school as unsafe for some children and the glowing notes of appreciation and support from other parents. The law firm’s report portrayed the leadership, removed and replaced by a caretaker, as nothing less than irresponsible and incompetent abusers of children when I knew them as dedicated and caring professionals.
I don’t want to minimize or deny the complaints of hurt parents of hurt children. Clearly, some troubling things happened that were not well-handled, but the superintendent’s decision to hire a team of lawyers to develop a bill of particulars rather than a team of educators to fix the problems suggests that her intent all along was to close the school. She clearly had no understanding of or sympathy for the pilot school concept whose promises of autonomy threatened her sense of control. The attack on the school’s existence was not just about Mission Hill. It was about the possibility of any kind of protected autonomy within the larger system.
The demise of Mission Hill sent me back to the work of Dr. Andy Hargreaves who has written extensively and, for me, painfully, about the fate of innovative schools. Dr. Hargreaves does not have good news for educational innovators. He found that over time most schools that began with a high degree of promise defaulted to conventional patterns. With rare exceptions, these schools reflected an “attrition of change.” As a partner in the founding of what we thought of as an innovative school almost a quarter of a century ago, reading Hargreaves’ work made me fear for my “baby.” I’m not close enough to the current iteration of that school to know whether and to what extent erosion has occurred.
The innovative energy for some schools just runs out, especially when the founding generation departs. But in the case of Mission Hill, that seems to be only a small part of the story. It suffered less from innovation fatigue than from outside forces more concerned about control than about supporting innovation.
At the same time as the death sentence was pronounced for Mission Hill, the superintendent’s contract was expiring. There is a promised second phase to the law firm’s report which will focus on the role of the central office in the (mis)handling of the parental complaints about not keeping their students safe. Part One of the investigation left readers with the impression that everything that went wrong originated at the school level. If there is any effort to right the balance, it will appear after the superintendent and her top staff are safe from being held accountable. No doubt her name will appear in the news of her hiring to lead yet another large school system, while the deposed leaders of Mission Hill will be barred for life from ever working in Boston or probably anywhere else ever again. Where is the justice in that?