Mary Grassa O'Neill, principal of the James P. Timilty Middle School, sat in her unadorned office. The walls were stripped and primed for a much-needed paint job. Ms. O'Neill brought 17 years of middle school experience to this, her first principalship. Three years had passed since her appointment, and her decision to initiate the Project Promise Pilot Program. Now, after two complete years of the Program, and a calm and orderly beginning of the third year, she had the luxury of some time to reflect on two important questions: What had Project Promise promised? and What had it delivered?
The Timilty Middle School, located in historic John Eliot Square of the Fort Hill section of Boston, had a troubled history and had suffered for many years from a poor reputation. Founded in 1937 as a junior high school (grades 7-9), and transformed to a middle school (grades 6-8) in 1974, it had seen its racial and ethnic composition change dramatically -- from 75 percent White and 25 percent Black in 1942 to 52 percent Black, 29 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian, and 9 percent White in 1988.
Following the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the late sixties, the atmosphere at the school reflected the violence, racial tension and turmoil of the surrounding community. In 1974, court-ordered desegregation resulted in turbulence and agitation in both the school and its community. In 1981, Proposition 2 1/2 1 led to layoffs of 30 percent of the teachers, and a precipitous decline in both faculty and student morale. In December 1985, when Ms. O'Neill took over as principal, the school had more than its share of problems: low reading and math scores, low student and teacher attendance, high suspension and failure rates, and a general reputation as a low achieving school. For many, including the press and the surrounding community, it was considered to be the “worst school in town.”
The Timilty community included the Black housing projects of Ruggles Street, several housing projects in all-White Charlestown, and most of Boston's South End, with its polyglot mix of Hispanic, Asian, White and Black. In the Boston Public School System (BPS), as in most other cities, students had no choice regarding their school assignment: all middle school students living in specific neighborhoods were assigned to their geocoded school. As a result, the Timilty's student population consisted of racially mixed, urban poor, living in substandard housing, burdened with the struggles of poverty, drugs and alcohol, teenage pregnancy, family crises, and neighborhood violence. Indeed, according to an AFDC2 report, and free-lunch statistics, the Timilty's students had the second lowest socioeconomic levels in the city. . . .
- What is your assessment of the data available of Project Promise? What additional information would you like to have? How might it be obtained?
- What is your assessment of the issues and concerns raised by Mr. Whall?
- What is your assessment of Ms. O'Neill's and the statistician’s responses to Mr. Whall? How might Mr. Whall reply to them?
- Has Project Promise been a success at the Timilty? Elsewhere? Should it be expanded to other schools in the BPS? In the country?
1 The result of a Massachusetts “taxpayer revolt”, resulting in the limitation of property taxes to 2 1/2 percent of the assessed value of the property.
2 Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a program run by the State Department of Public Welfare.