Fifteen years ago, the school system in this small city across the Mystic River from Boston was a case study in failure. Test scores languished, school buildings were a century old, and middle-class families had long since made an exodus to the suburbs.
The school board invited BU to manage the district under a 10-year contract, now extended until 2008.
Today, the 5,600-student district, which serves mainly low-income Latino students, is one of only three urban districts in Massachusetts that met goals for adequate yearly academic progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Chelsea boasts an early-childhood-learning center that is the envy of wealthier towns, and a major construction project in 1997 helped erect new schools to replace buildings that had been crumbling for years.
Boston University has provided professional development and scholarships for ChelseaÍs teachers, started a private foundationthat has raised almost $12 million for the schools since 1991, developed a family-literacy program, and set up a school-based dental clinic that provides free checkups for students.
Along the way, the partnership has survived lawsuits from the state teachers’ union and from a coalition of community groups, as well as a financial crisis that left the city in state receivership for three years.
While BU took over in 1989, test scores remained low for years.
Until 1997, (Superintendent Thomas Kingston) said, Chelsea continued to have some of the lowest test scores in the state. And still today, the district struggles to match improvements in the early grades with gains at the middle and high school levels.
“The university thought reform would be easier than it was,” Mr. Kingston said during an interview this month in his office at Chelsea City Hall. “But people were not aware of how deep the constraints were, how low the expectations were, and how frustrated and demoralized teachers were.”
Chelsea schools use the Core Knowledge curriculum developed by E.D. Hirsch.