Sunday, January 06, 2019

Boston to boot older students from high school

Tucked between red brick row houses in Bay Village, Boston Adult Technical Academy has helped scores of immigrants over the years realize their dreams of earning a high school diploma so they can flourish in college.

Rebecca Datus enrolled last year, shortly after arriving from Haiti, speaking barely any English. She has gained a stronger grasp of the language and has been looking forward to graduation in June. She would like to become a doctor. “It is my dream since I was a little child,” Datus said through an interpreter one day after school. “I want to be somebody and help my family.”

But Datus might not get that diploma after all. When she turns 22 in March, the School Department plans to kick her out, a situation about two dozen of her classmates will also face before commencement.

School district officials this year are taking a hard-line approach in enforcing a two-decade-old policy that calls for ejecting students from school on their 22nd birthday — an edict they had routinely ignored in the past if overage students were on track to graduate.

The reversal is causing an uproar among students and teachers, who argue strict adherence is creating an unnecessary barrier for students — many of whom have already overcome steep odds — to earn a diploma, go to college, and build a better life for themselves in America.

In a school system that has been trying for years to boost graduation rates, even knocking on dropouts’ doors to lure them back to class, teachers say rigid enforcement of the age limit just a few months before commencement is nonsensical. “We say students are welcomed, then we give them the birthday gift of being kicked out,” said teacher Gage Norris.

The Boston School Department declined an interview request. In a statement, it said it is planning to discuss the issue with teachers and administrators in the coming weeks.

Massachusetts is one of the few states nationwide that do not set a cut-off age for students to earn a diploma, leaving it up to local school systems to decide. Debates often include emotionally charged questions, such as how long school systems should give students a chance to earn a diploma and whether it’s wise to have young teenagers and students old enough to purchase alcohol in the same building.

The Boston School Committee passed its policy in 1999 as the school system grappled with more than 1,000 students over the age of 20. At the time, some educators worried about whether immigrant students, who made up a big portion of the over-20 population, would receive enough support in part-time adult education settings that are not designed to support students with major language barriers.

Those concerns persist. The programs typically hold sessions only a couple times a week for just a few hours at a time — considerably less than the nearly three dozen hours of weekly instruction at a high school.

“Those programs are in shambles,” said Roger Rice, executive director at  Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy, a Somerville-based nonprofit that works on behalf of linguistic minorities, noting adult education programs are significantly underfunded. “Newcomers to this country get virtually no support.” He added, “What is the social good of booting them to the curb midyear?”

Teachers at Boston Adult Technical Academy, also known as BATA, are seeking to formally loosen the policy so 22-year-old students with good academic records can receive their diplomas in June. “It would be such a simple policy change,” said Gina Cogan, a teacher. “The number of students it would affect in the district would be very small, but the benefits would be tremendous.”

The dispute is the latest flashpoint in the school system’s ongoing struggle to educate off-track and overage students. A city-commissioned report last May slammed the school system for failing to do enough to help these students get to graduation, calling for an overhaul of alternative education.


Commission OKs recommendation to arm teachers in Florida

The commission investigating a shooting massacre at a Florida high school unanimously approved its initial findings and recommendations Wednesday, including a controversial proposal that teachers who volunteer and undergo training be allowed to carry guns.

The 15-member Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission’s 446-page report details what members believe happened before, during, and after the Feb. 14, 2017, shooting attack that left 14 students and three staff members dead and 17 wounded.

The report, which the commission sent to Governor Rick Scott, incoming Governor Ron DeSantis, and the Legislature, is also critical of the Broward County sheriff’s deputies who failed to confront suspect Nikolas Cruz, and of Sheriff Scott Israel, whose office did not at the time have a policy requiring them to rush the three-story freshman building where the shooting happened. Israel’s critics hope the report will result in DeSantis suspending Israel shortly after the new governor takes office Tuesday.

The report also details failures in the county school district’s security program that members believe allowed Cruz, a former student known to have serious emotional and behavioral problems, to enter campus while carrying an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in a bag.

Even since the shooting, not all Florida school districts and campuses have been taking security seriously, the report says, noting that several districts have been slow to complete mandated reviews of their safety plans and procedures.

‘‘Safety and security accountability is lacking in schools, and that accountability is paramount for effective change if we expect a different result in the future than what occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas,’’ the report says.

State law should be changed to allow teachers who pass an intense training program and background check to carry concealed weapons on campus, the report says. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the panel’s chairman, argued last month for the change, saying teachers are often the ones who have the best chance to stop a school shooting quickly.

Under a law passed after the shooting, districts can elect to arm nonclassroom employees such as principals, other administrators, custodians, and librarians who undergo training. The only teachers allowed to arm themselves are current or former police officers, active military members, or Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructors.

Thirteen of the state’s 67 districts arm nonteaching employees, mostly in rural parts of the state. The state teachers union and PTA oppose the proposal to arm teachers. They argue that adding more armed people will make campuses more dangerous and say teachers should not also be acting as armed guards.


Teacher unionism under challenge

Organized labor suffered a major loss to its right-leaning foes last year when the US Supreme Court ruled against an important funding source for public-sector unions.

Now, that fight comes to Boston.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled on Tuesday to hear an appeal that was filed on behalf of several public-sector educators — two professors and a computing director at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a Hanover school teacher — who argue they shouldn’t be forced to support a union. The force behind this case: the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the same group that won at the Supreme Court in the so-called Janus case.

As with that decision, this Massachusetts case initially focused on whether nonmembers should be forced to pay agency fees to unions. Until Janus, public-sector unions could collect fees from nonmembers to cover the costs to represent them in labor talks and disputes, but not for political work. That changed last June when the Supreme Court’s conservative majority decided this practice went too far, infringing on workers’ First Amendment rights.

Janus is the law of the land now. So the case here in Boston — let’s call it the Branch case, after the first listed plaintiff — now revolves around one unresolved issue concerning unions’ exclusive collective bargaining role.

The plaintiffs say they deserve a seat at the table — a voice and a vote, as they put it — in union deliberations, even if they choose not to join. The argument: They’re essentially coerced into paying dues if they want a say in their workplace conditions, a First Amendment violation.

It’s an argument that Massachusetts AFL-CIO president Steven Tolman finds ridiculous. His organization filed a brief with the SJC saying the plaintiffs essentially want unions to open the doors to people who oppose them. Dissenting employees, the labor group says, already have plenty of ways to air concerns about their working conditions.

Tolman is fired up. As he puts it, this case is just the latest “attack on working people.” There’s no doubt the Janus decision weakened unions’ clout, although Tolman says he doesn’t know of any local ones that have taken a big financial hit yet. But he’s upset about the efforts to chip away at union authority across the country.

Most business groups aren’t getting involved. But the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents smaller employers, has signed onto a brief backing the plaintiffs. Chris Carlozzi, the group’s Massachusetts director, says his group has long been frustrated by the financial clout of public-employee unions and the edge that gives them in political debates on Beacon Hill. These debates have major impacts on private-sector issues: minimum wage increases and paid family leave requirements, to name just two.

Meanwhile, union-friendly state lawmakers are gearing up to pass a “Janus fix” after time ran out on a previous effort last year. Senator Joseph Boncore says he will resume the fight this month, as a new two-year session begins. His approach would essentially help unions to represent nonmembers for specific work — such as grievances and arbitration hearings — and charge them directly for those costs, on an a la carte basis, as opposed to the subscription model that existed pre-Janus. Boncore says organized labor is under assault by Corporate America. It’s time, he says, to stand up.

Union officials might have hoped that the Janus decision would be the last major attack. But now, here in Massachusetts, they’ve got at least one more legal battle on the horizon.


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