Time for Innovation: A Beautiful Schools Movement for South Boston

By Richard Campbell

There is no question that several of the older underperforming schools in South Boston are not going to be fixed by a mere brush up. As Roxbury received the first new advanced campus with the $73 million Dearborn STEM Academy- the first new BPS school in 15 years- the question of how many schools in our neighborhood should be redeveloped or replaced is a relatively unexplored issue. Before the city finds its permanent new Superintendent of Schools, we suggest the mayor gather some architectural design experts to formulate and begin thinking about a comprehensive South Boston Beautiful Schools Movement. Perhaps Laura Perille, the Interim Superintendent could be convinced to consider laying the foundation for such a movement.

One of the principal concepts behind a Beautiful Schools Movement is that if you design schools to be as inspirational as other great architecture they will have a lasting impact upon enrollment and education. Dearborn is a good start, but all the schools in a wealthy city like Boston should deliver transformational educational design. While it is understood that great design in and of itself is not all that is needed to create exemplar schools; it is definitely true that poorly designed, crumbling schools contribute to school failures. The birthplace of public education now has a built-in mission to dramatically transform itself in the coming decade. Accordingly, the next Superintendent of Schools will need to come to Boston with a track record in massive rebuilding projects.

Old Schools on Pricy Land

For years we have been satisfied with run down, poorly designed schools, that have branded our educational environments in South Boston as having sub-par physical plants. While other neighborhoods have received attention with renovations, South Boston should expect the same substantial design improvements, or more importantly-outright replacements. As real estate and business in our midst zoom ahead with towering luxury for citizens, our public schools advertise openly the inequality in our area of the city. Furthermore, we can never get to great neighborhood schools without having the courage to ask for them.

What is more important is that the new Superintendent and the Mayor consider comprehensive plans for each neighborhood, including South Boston. The ten-year plan for the city schools which received significant community input has laid out very basic parameters for future schools. It needs to move more aggressively to the program level. In short, we need to know how advanced design makes elementary, junior high and high school building architecture truly unique, educationally visionary, and aesthetically pleasing. In order to fast track such a plan of advanced design, the city of Boston would be wise to reach out to its major universities for program assistance. This then would also contribute greatly to the meaning of a Beautiful Schools Movement.

City officials, as they are acutely aware of budgets, must guard against getting mired in low bid deals that are not visionary or interesting and end up being more expensive in the long run. The formula at Dearborn may have yielded results, but we must be mindful of the cookie cutter approach to schools. Integrated builds of multiple simultaneous projects that share design components could significantly lower the cost of engineering a new generation of schools. One of the reasons many parents don’t send their kids to non-academy public schools is the low-quality built environments. Presently South Boston is in the right place to remedy this kind of ad-hoc design. Because of the high real estate values of the land that some of these older, outdated schools sit upon in South Boston, the city could leverage funds to create a whole new set of schools on city land.

What would be the proper set of ideas to begin thinking about significantly changing all the outdated schools in South Boston? First, consolidating a series of underperforming schools into one larger school with best practices and resources would automatically create the motivational force to raise standards. Second, the educators of Boston should create new schools that honor the true beauty and aesthetics of the water bound community that is South Boston. Because of the factory mentality of the past, designers rarely thought to locate our schools with a view of the beautiful ocean upon which we live. They’ve created a series of fish bowl buildings, none of which feel like a campus. Designers must be constantly reminded of the larger community use schools could have for South Boston. In a city that celebrates some of the most advanced college campuses in the world, we should expect our elementary and high schools to be more engaging.

Some of this has already happened on an incremental level elsewhere in the city schools, as well as private ones. For example, an integrated junior high and high school program, as Boston College High school does, could bring students a better perspective on their development towards high school and college. We are dropping students somewhere between junior high and high school when they are performing well in elementary school. Do you know why Boston Latin and Boston College High have libraries on their campuses? Because you can’t have an advanced high school without a library. At the center of the problem for South Boston High is the space is not big enough to include a library and consolidating that school with a junior high school onto a new campus is the answer. Since South Boston High is too small to expand into a full-fledged technical school, or even an academy school with a library like Boston Latin; the city should consider selling it for the seed money for a new kind of high school on a location like Moakley Park.

From this perspective, South Boston should consider an innovative future school campus plan for the waterfront. Whether that means obtaining state lands of Marine Park or on the city location of Moakley Park, or lands facing Carson Beach, an ocean view campus should be the first option as a premise of creating a spectacularly designed combined junior /senior high school. South Boston could consider the future of a Life Sciences Academy campus, a hybrid junior high school and high school dedicated to Life Sciences preparation. Whether such a school chooses STEM or vocational training, the mythology that schools should follow all purpose designs that are not mission focused is pretty much banished. Making a campus that is advanced and mission focused is the way to drive up enrollment, achievement, and community support. Why a Life Sciences Academy?

Consider the Stakeholders: With the huge and extremely profitable Biomedical industry sitting in our midst, the City should have no problem raising the kinds of funds needed to have a first-class technology campus that is aesthetically pleasing as well. A Life Sciences Academy would be a good choice for a South Boston school in a city that is dominated by health care. Imagine a school with its own well-fortified instructional research center, new chemistry labs, biotech maker spaces for students who want to pursue life sciences. Imagine students that have immediate access to their playing fields for physical education, an ocean laboratory or perhaps an ample sized auditorium that could be used for community meetings. This would be a game changer for our city schools that would increase enrollment and elevate programs among the students in South Boston.

We need a more visionary Beautiful School Movement to stop the tradition of passing ugly schools down to another generation. When you consider the kind of high-powered transformational Superintendent needed for such a massive project, the model might be what former Massachusetts State Senator Mark Roosevelt did for the Pittsburgh Public Schools. It is understood that a real plan to replace all the out dated schools in South Boston will call for hundreds of millions of dollars, and the road map for our neighborhood will not magically occur. The truth is this city is awash with surplus corporate money waiting in the wings to proudly become contributors in public private partnerships. We as a neighborhood want to be known for elegant frugality-for combining visionary design with cost savings to bring the best design to our future students. Holding architects and builders to a high standard and a reasonable price is paramount.

A beautiful, well designed environment, built around a specific focus, to engage students in learning is not something that happens by standard white papers and committees. The visionary architect of such a plan for the school system has to know how to engage all stakeholders, to raise serious funds, and to bring in resources from our city to make things happen. The time has come for genuine creative thinking about architecture, design, urban planning, the value of our ocean environment and a new day for local schools in our neighborhood.More of the same is not what the neighborhood needs. The Boston Public School system needs to find a superintendent who can propose and execute a massive rebuilding plan. This neighborhood is poised to take a leadership role in the process. It is time for courage and innovation, to recognize spending significant resources on a Beautiful Schools Movement will place Boston Public Schools properly into this new century.

Jeanne Rooney

Jeanne Rooney is the Editor in Chief for South Boston Online.