By Anibal Santiago
A small city like Chelsea with big city challenges was being run by new leaders when the coronavirus hit.
In the first three months on the job, Almudena Abeyta from New Mexico, sat as the acting Superintendent of Chelsea Public Schools when the health crisis hit the city. With 24 years of education experience–five years as a principal and some time as an assistant superintendent–nothing could prepare her for leading a school district during a pandemic.
“Just my luck that COVID-19 hit before I had a chance to show the city who I was and what I had to offer in order for them to trust that I would do my best to lead them through it,” said Abeyta.
Trained by Mary Bourque–Chelsea native and superintendent of nine years–Abeyta was given the rare opportunity to work side by side with Bourque and learn how to oversee Chelsea Public Schools. “I was very grateful to have been given the chance to work alongside Mary for six months. It was unique to Chelsea for the training overlap, that usually does not happen,” said Abeyta.
While the city struggled with the major crisis, Abeyta met with other city leaders to come up with options that would ultimately impact job duties of educators and the education of the students. She partnered with Chelsea High School Principal Mark Martineau. “I decided to close the school on March 13 but had the message delivered and announced on the March 12 to all schools,” said Abeyta.
Martineau is now completing his 10th year as an employee at Chelsea High School. During that time, he has worked as a history teacher, an assistant principal and now as principal since October 2019. “When we decided to shut down the school, all we were concerned about was the students’ well-being first,” said Martineau.
Abeyta allotted a two-week close time for the teachers and staff to prepare and create a newly developed delivery via remote, of the same in-class curriculum. During this break, Abeyta gathered approval and funding for 3,500 laptops to be delivered to the students. Unlike other cities, the majority of this community lives below the poverty line, which required this kind of funding.
But funds are the biggest hurdles for Chelsea Schools. The city works closely and aggressively with state representatives to fight for more funding to better serve their community. Rosemary, a 23-year-veteran of the Chelsea School Committee is well known in the city and with the state representatives.
“I tell them all the time to put their money where their mouth is, every time I call the state reps, they know exactly who I am and what I’m calling for. Chelsea needs help, we need the money to serve all these kids and its always a battle every year. But I’m never tired of fighting. I was born and raised here and still live here, this city is all I know, my kids even went to school here,” said Rosemary.
The new leaders in-charge inherited many on-going challenges that are deep rooted in the city. Lack of diversity in the staff to mirror the student body continues to lack and grows at a slow pace.
“I made it one my main missions to diversify the staff in Chelsea across the board, and I was able to do that in my 9 years, bringing the percentage of people of color to 30 to 40 percent. But I still admit I was not successful because teachers specifically in Chelsea are majority white,” said Bourque.
Bourque said that Chelsea is a poor city and can’t compete with other districts when it comes to productivity, equipment, staffing. She said she always collaborates with Teachers of America to contract teachers of color. She said she would get them for two years and then they would leave for another job.
“I mean, I want them to stay because I chose them for a reason, to better suit and serve the students which aligns with my mission of diversifying my staff. But can I blame them for leaving to do the same job but for $6,000 to $8,000 more in Boston Public Schools?” said Bourque.
Diversifying the staff in Chelsea could have helped bridge the communication that was said to have been missing through the pandemic, from teacher to parents. Salary competition continues to be known factor that blocks Bourque from completing her mission, but it does not stop there when it comes to shortages. The average state net city budget in Massachusetts is 138 percent contribution. In Chelsea, it is at 104 percent. The huge difference in budget can help save the city in many ways from support staff to equipment.
The plan to reopen schools in the new academic year has the highest priority for the city leaders. Bourque said she feels confident that the city will make the right decisions for the community.
“I left Almi with solid leadership to lead the city moving forward. I was never afraid to admit where I did wrong or fell short,” said Bourque. “I have no problem peeling back the Band-Aid and looking at the wound to assess the issue, point out the errors, and move on smarter and stronger.” she said. “I know the leaders in Chelsea are going to come back stronger and continue to make progress in any way they find possible.”
Almi and her team has created a team of 20 people, divided into four sections, to make up the Reopening Task Force to plan and implement what the new academic year is going to look like.
- Government and Communications
- Operations Safety
- Instruction and Remote Learning
- Student Health
“There has been talk of hybrid learning for the new school year, ” said Abeyta. This involves having half of the student population in the school at time while the other half is learning remotely, then they switch. “But nothing has been decided on yet,” she said. “But I do know, when students come back to school in the fall, we have to pause and check on the students first, before we continue with the same rigorous curriculum we have always had.”
Leaders have yet to finalize a plan for the new academic year, but they have undergone a successful summer school program for those students that needed to retake classes to graduate on time, under the safety guidelines set in place to protect those involved.
“We have a healthy yet aggressive summer school program happening as we speak,” said Martineau. “Kids are engaging two hours a day, four days a week for four weeks and it has gone well thus far,” he said. “We want to make sure our students get the education they need by whatever means possible, so it was important for us to make sure that summer school was still an option during this pandemic.”