With plan to move O’Bryant school shelved, many are relieved but question what’s next

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On a sunny day last June, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu called a surprise press conference on Malcolm X Boulevard in Roxbury — just outside the shared campus of two of the city’s largest high schools, the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science and the Madison Park Technical Vocational High School.

Joined by Mary Skipper, the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, Wu praised the schools, but noted that space constraints have held them back from expansion and “from having a true home of their own.”

As part of her broader makeover of BPS buildings, known as the Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools, Wu then announced an ambitious proposal to relocate the O’Bryant seven miles away to an educational complex in West Roxbury, left empty after four school closures in 2019, in turn giving room for Madison Park to expand on-site.

But the plan was met with months of community resistance. Many faculty, students and alumni loudly opposed the prospect of moving the O’Bryant from a diverse, central neighborhood to a hard-to-reach and predominantly white corner of the city on the border with Dedham.

Mayor Michelle Wu and School Superintendent Mary Skipper announce their vision for the expansion of Madison Park Technical Vocational High School and John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in June 2023. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

And so the O’Bryant move was abandoned on Tuesday night — just as abruptly as it had been proposed.

In an email to the two school communities, Wu, Skipper and Boston School Committee Chair Jeri Robinson wrote, “With a lack of consensus around moving the O’Bryant School to the West Roxbury Educational Complex, we are halting those plans indefinitely.”

The letter gave little insight into what comes next for the O’Bryant, and implied that the school will remain mostly unmodified at its current Roxbury site, at least while most of the promised renovation and expansion goes forward at neighboring Madison Park.

While many skeptics in the O’Bryant community are relieved that the move has been called off, they’re also grappling with the fact any change is on hold, and that the school is cast back indefinitely into a building that everyone — including Wu and Skipper — agrees is inadequate.

“I feel pretty mixed,” said Nora Paul-Schultz, who has taught physics and engineering at the O’Bryant for the past 10 years.

“I’m very excited we’re not moving to West Roxbury. And I’m very concerned that the district doesn’t have a plan for the future of our building,” she said.

A reversal of course

The initial outcry against the O’Bryant’s move began to ring out almost immediately after the proposal.

In the weeks after Wu’s announcement, teachers, parents, students and alumni banded together to raise wide-ranging concerns. The group pointed to West Roxbury’s lack of diversity and its remoteness from many parts of the city. For instance, the proposed site is over 90 minutes away from East Boston’s Maverick Square via public transit.

Due to a planned “gut renovation” of the West Roxbury complex, the new O’Bryant wasn’t set to open until fall 2026 at the earliest. But a coalition fronted by O’Bryant teachers and parents convinced city leaders that no matter when it occurred, the move was wrong for the school.

Some joined the opposition early.

Just hours after Wu’s press conference, Erin Murphy, an at-large Boston city councilor and former BPS educator, put out a statement saying that given its student population and after decades in a too-small building, the O’Bryant deserves “a state-of-the-art campus … that is centrally located in the city.”

Of the city’s three exam schools, the O’Bryant’s student body is the most diverse in terms of race, language and socioeconomic status.

While it uses the same competitive selection process as the Boston Latin School and Boston Latin Academy, nearly half of O’Bryant students speak a first language other than English. Sixty percent are classified as low-income and its Black and Latino enrollment hovers near 70%.

With that distinction in mind, City Councilor Julia Mejia, who serves as chair of the council’s committee on education, held a December meeting on the O’Bryant move that ran for nearly five hours.

During testimony at that hearing, BPS officials said they had sought, but not found, an alternative site that worked as well as the West Roxbury campus, which sits on a 14-acre lot equipped with relatively new athletic facilities, including turf fields, tennis courts and a track.

But in the end, by a vote of 9 to 2, the council passed a non-binding resolution opposing the move, and calling for more engagement with O’Bryant parents, students and teachers.

The resolution said that “the viability of the proposed plan should be thoroughly examined, considering factors such as funding availability, construction timelines, transportation logistics and the long-term sustainability of relocating.”

That resolution prompted little in the way of a formal reply from city or district officials. But in  a conversation on WBUR’s Radio Boston almost two weeks later, Wu seemed to signal hesitation.

“These are hard conversations that are complex and involve a lot of communities,” Wu said about the pushback. “I just want to acknowledge that I am always learning in this job as well.”

What had felt to many like the only option under consideration became, in Wu’s words, “a proposal on the table … something for people to react to.”

Wu did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday about her reasoning for the reversal, though her staff shared Tuesday’s letter with WBUR.

However abrupt, the reversal of course won applause from many in education leadership citywide. Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, called it evidence of “responsive leadership.”

“You know, they put an idea out there,” Tang said of Wu and Skipper. “They thought it would be a good idea for many reasons, but having heard overwhelming opposition and not a ton of support,” they took it off the table.

After Superintendent Skipper announced the decision to drop the plan as part of her opening remarks before the Boston School Committee Wednesday night, several members said they were relieved given the O’Bryant community’s concerns.

Echoing colleagues Stephen Alkins and Chantal Lima Barbosa, Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, a committee member since 2022, called it a “great decision,” adding, “I think it takes a lot of courage, [because] politically, it’s often easier to try to save face.”

Like other members, Cardet-Hernandez said he had been surprised that the move was announced without prior discussion by the committee, and that he hoped the episode was a lesson in “not getting ahead of ourselves.”

Skipper also said that the district will hold a discussion with members of the two school communities over Zoom on March 13 at 5 p.m.

In an interview with WBUR Wednesday, Councilor Murphy also applauded the reversal, but said it’s a sign that the city’s public process is dysfunctional.

“We see this happening time and time again, where the decision’s already been made” before community members are brought in to offer their insights, she said. “In this case, the pushback was strong enough.”

In conversations with O’Bryant staff and students, Murphy added many had always been skeptical of the proposed West Roxbury site but also felt the school’s current building needs to be repaired or rebuilt.

Everybody “wants the ceilings fixed … wants a state-of-the-art science lab,” she said.

Murphy pledged that she and other councilors won’t forget the O’Bryant soon: “Myself, many of my colleagues, will continue to advocate that students, teachers and families have a strong school building… We have to support them in any way that we can.”

Students walk down Malcolm X Boulevard on their way to John D. O’ Bryant School in Roxbury. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Students walk down Malcolm X Boulevard on their way to John D. O’ Bryant School in Roxbury. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

‘The right first step’

Meanwhile, within the O’Bryant, many still believe the hulking concrete structures it shares with Madison Park are no longer fit for their purpose.

Though the O’Bryant is the smallest exam school, with just under 1,600 students, it’s also one of about 50 Boston Public Schools deemed to be over capacity, according to data shared with WBUR by the district. One argument for the move to West Roxbury was that it would have allowed the O’Bryant to expand capacity to match Boston Latin School, growing to roughly 2,000 seats.

And in a recent assessment of district facilities, the shared O’Bryant and Madison Park complex received an “overall building score” of just 19 out of 100 — well below the district average.

Even the many students at the O’Bryant who opposed the move are left dissatisfied with an “indefinite” extension of the status quo.

As a senior, Isabella Pedroza Muñoz, of Mattapan, wouldn’t have been present for the planned relocation. But she said that ever since she came to the O’Bryant in the 10th grade, “We’ve always had our roof leaking. Even our bathroom flooded… That needs to get fixed.”

Her longer-term goal, she said, was a general beautification of the decades-old building. Many classrooms lack windows; stains linger on the floors. “That’s a really big thing — our school is very sad,” Muñoz said. “The vibe it gives is very dull.”

Arianny Ramos, Muñoz’s friend and classmate, also noted that the ceilings leak — and not always just water, but what she called a “rust-colored liquid.”

So while Wu is getting some praise for hearing the will of the people, the plan’s critics aren’t ready to declare victory just yet.

Rahul Dhanda, a Dorchester-based parent to a current O’Bryant student and a recent graduate, called the reversal “the right, first step of what should be multiple steps for the school.”

But he reacted with dismay to the suggestion that Madison Park’s renovations will go forward with no concrete plan of what will happen to the O’Bryant in the meantime.

“When there’s already been a commitment to make changes to the structure” at Madison Park, Dhanda said, “it seems incredibly incomplete to not continue the process — renovating and improving that building for all of its occupants.

“That’s only a half-measure for students who really deserve a full measure,” he said.

WBUR reporter Carrie Jung contributed to this report.

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