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Experiment in School Reform Posts Few Perceptible Improvements

September 4, 1992

BOSTON (AP) _ Three years after Boston University assumed management of Chelsea’s public schools, what was billed as a model for urban education reform is getting poor marks for results.

Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have fallen, teacher absenteeism is up and the dropout rate is still above 50 percent.

University officials blame budget cuts for many of the setbacks, and say their progress shouldn’t be judged from test scores.

″We’re building a foundation,″ said Paul Clemente, chairman of the university’s Chelsea management team. ″Expecting that those numbers in a short period of time will define whether we’re successful or not, that’s unfair.″

Figures released by the university this week show that most test scores are lower than when it took control of Chelsea’s schools in 1989.

″I was hoping the results would be a little better than they are,″ said Rosemarie Carlisle, a member of the Chelsea School Committee. ″But it takes time to make these changes. Problems that have existed for so long can’t be fixed overnight.″

Like some parents, Carlisle said she was concerned that Boston University has focused on the younger grades at the expense of older students.

″More emphasis should be put on the kids in the higher grades,″ she said. ″We don’t want to lose them either.″

The university’s president, John Silber, angry at the focus on test scores, called the partnership ″a huge success.″

″Somebody ought to go to the classroom and look at what’s going on and see the excitement in these kids,″ he said.

The centerpiece of the experiment is a year-round, all-day early childhood program for children ages 3 and 4. There also is a literacy project that teaches whole families to read and a school-based health clinic that deals with nutrition, dental and other health problems.

Financial problems forced Chelsea into receivership in 1991, and the education budget was reduced dramatically. School opened two weeks late, 50 out of 302 teaching posts were eliminated and some classes increased to 40 students.

There are 3,500 students in the school system, 73 percent of them minorities.

Clemente said the university’s work ought to be judged by the success of children who have been part of the experiment since the day they entered school.

Scores for third graders who took the Massachusetts Basic Skills Test, which measures reading, writing and math, rose slightly between 1989 and 1991. The test was not given this year because of state budget cuts.

But scores for sixth- and ninth-grade students fell.

So did SAT scores, which had improved from 664 to 698 in the first two years of the experiment but dropped to 620 in the last year. University officials blame the dropoff on budget cuts, which led to crowded classrooms.

Average achievement tests rose.

The high school dropout rate was 52 percent, virtually unchanged from 1989, although the rate was showing signs of slowing. Student attendance stayed even system-wide but fell at the high school. And teacher absenteeism rose, which the university attributes to increased pressures on teachers resulting from the budget crisis.

″People were expecting a miracle,″ said Tanya Ayala, a parent and director of the Chelsea Parent Information Center. ″It’s taking us a little while to get our miracle together.″

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