Development of pilot schools has failed to keep pace with community interest, says Boston Foundation

July 10, 2008

Boston – Recent news that one new pilot school has been approved by the office of the Superintendent and the Boston Teachers Union and one existing pilot school will expand was praised by Boston Foundation President and CEO Paul S. Grogan, who also expressed concern that the overall increase in the number of pilot schools has failed to keep pace with strong interest on the part of Boston families and still represents a missed opportunity for the school system as a whole.

The two schools, Mary Lyon Pilot High School, which is new, and Harbor Pilot High School, which is an expansion, will now be voted on by the School Committee, the final step of the approval process, later this summer. Grogan urged the Committee to vote yes.

“The next time you hear someone in the Boston Teachers Union leadership lament the fiscal plight of the Boston School System, ask them why they have blocked the creation of new pilot schools,” said Grogan. “These schools keep students in the system and bring new families in, as well. So why have no pilot schools been approved in the past five years, despite the success of the pilot school model and high demand for them?”

Since 1998, the Boston School System has lost more than 7,300 students. Each student brings approximately $16,000 in support into the system.

A recent white paper published by the Center for Collaborative Education entitled Family and Student Choices in Boston Public Schools made clear the power of pilot schools to keep students in the system and to draw in families that will otherwise leave. Among the findings of the report are:   

  • Of the 10 high schools most frequently chosen for 2007-08, no fewer than six are pilots, although pilots represent a fraction of the number of high schools in the city;   
  • Demand for pilot schools greatly outnumbered available seats,
  • At the major transition grades—K2, first grade and sixth grade—pilot school choosers who were not admitted to pilot schools were approximately twice as likely to leave the system than those not in pilot schools who did not receive their first choice.

Earlier research established that students in pilot schools performed better than their peers in Boston schools overall.

More than 20 schools and community groups signaled their interest in creating new pilot schools or, in the case of existing schools, converting to pilot status, earlier this year, when the Boston Foundation invited applications for planning grants. The Boston Foundation, a consistent advocate of the pilot school model, provides grants of $20,000 to facilitate the first phase of conversion to pilot status, in which an existing school or community group designs a plan and/or builds consensus among faculty and staff. An additional five schools also expressed interest in converting but were not ready to apply for the planning grant.

The role of the Boston Teachers Union leadership

While School Superintendent Carol Johnson has been outspoken in her support of pilot schools as a strategy for the Boston system, the leadership of the Boston Teachers Union has blocked schools that sought conversion to pilot status and has accented the negative in a constant flow of information to their membership.

The last school that voted to become a pilot school, the Gardner School in Brighton in 2003, was vetoed by the leadership of the Boston Teachers Union and not able to complete the conversion process until 2005. And when the Kennedy School successfully voted to apply for pilot school status in 2006, the BTU leadership demanded a meeting with the employees of the school, after which the faculty and staff reversed themselves and voted not to pursue pilot status.

Repeated items about pilot schools in the newspaper of the BTU and in email correspondence to members of the union have stressed the possibility that pilot school teachers may be required to work extra hours, that teachers who vote for conversion lose the protection of the union contact and that school closings will not spare those who work at pilot schools.

“The contract signed by the Boston Teachers Union in 2006 stipulates ‘no fewer than seven’ new pilot schools will be created by 2009,” said Grogan. “That was a commitment made in response for benefits conferred by the contract.”

The specific language in the 2006-2010 Collective Bargaining Agreement between the Boston Teachers Union and the Boston School Committee states: The parties agree that a minimum number of seven pilot schools, provided there are sufficient proposals to consider, will be created through September 09 under this agreement. 

Under the terms of that contract, the members of the Boston Teachers Union received pay increases of 14.8 percent over four years, including a $12.9 million retroactive pay increase. School employees also received a new teacher development program, and those working in so-called Superintendent Schools were granted a 15.4 percent increase in return for one hour of time added to their schedules.

The first school to come up for a vote after that contract was approved was the Edison Middle School, in June of 2007. During the planning process, the BTU leadership urged the planning committee at Edison to use language taken directly from the contract which would have limited the school’s autonomy with regard to personnel decisions. Both the Edison principal and Acting Superintendent Michael Contompasis objected to that inclusion because it violated the fundamental design of pilot schools. Subsequently, that language was removed from the plan, and the plan failed to receive the two-thirds vote by BTU members required for conversion.

Grogan said the efforts of the leadership of the Boston Teachers Union to undermine the movement to create more pilot schools is completely at odds with both the clearly expressed pent-up demand for seats in pilot schools by local families and by teachers and administrators who have expressed their interest in making the change.

“Pilot schools established and effective model for urban public schools and the leadership of the Boston Teachers Union opposes it,” said Grogan. “The city of Los Angeles saw the potential of pilots and used the Boston model as the basis for a new innovative strategy now serving more than 4,000 students. Many of the principles of pilot schools have been included in Governor Deval Patrick’s new Readiness School concept, to be implemented state-wide.”

Pilot schools are Boston public schools that have been granted greater control over budget, staffing, curriculum, governance and schedule. Typically smaller than regular Boston schools, they place great emphasis on creating a unique and nurturing school culture. Pilots were first created in Boston in 1995 through a unique partnership among the Mayor, the office of the School Superintendent, the School Committee, and the Boston Teachers Union. Currently, 20 pilot schools serve approximately 11 percent of the total Boston student population.


The Boston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, is one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the nation, with assets of over $964 million.  In 2007, the Foundation and its donors made more than $92 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and received gifts of more than $155 million.  The Foundation is made up of some 850 separate charitable funds established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes.  The Boston Foundation also serves as a major civic leader, provider of information, convener, and sponsor of special initiatives designed to address the community’s and region’s most pressing challenges.  For more information about the Boston Foundation, visit or call 617-338-1700.