By Anibal Santiago
A small city like Chelsea, with big city challenges, was being ran by new leaders when the Corona Virus hit. In the first three months on the job, Doctor 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 sometime as an assistant superintendent, nothing prepared her for leading a local education department during a pandemic.
“I know! My luck 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. But Mary was and is still by my side through it all so I know we will get through this,” said Abeyta.
Trained by the seasoned superintendent of nine years, Mary Bourque a born Chelsea resident; she was given the rare opportunity to cross train, to learn how much there was to run such a small city.
“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 Dr. Abeyta who goes by Almi.
While the city struggled to adapt to the major crisis, Abeyta was forced to meet with other city leaders to enforce decisions that would impact job duties, and more importantly, the education of the students. She partnered with Chelsea High School Principal, Mark Martineau.
“I decided to close the school on March 13th, but had the message delivered and announced on the 12th to all schools,” said Dr. Abeyta.
Mark Martineau is now completing his tenth year as an employee at Chelsea High School, most of his time as a History teacher, some time as an assistant principal, and now the principal as of October 2019.
“When we decided to shut down the school, all we were concerned about was the student’s 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 3500 laptops to be delivered to the students. Unlike other cities, the majority of this community lives under 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 explained that Chelsea is a poor city and can’t compete with other districts when it comes to productivity, equipment, staffing, etc. She always collaborates with Teachers of America to contract teachers of color; 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 to 8 thousand dollars 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; while 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 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. 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. I know the leaders in Chelsea are going to come back stronger and continue to make progress in any way they find possible,” said Bourque.
Almi and her team has created a team of 20 people, divided into four sections, to make up the Re-opening 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, this involved 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. 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,” said Dr. Abeyta
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. Kids are engaging two hours a day, four days a week for four weeks and it has gone well thus far. 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,” said Martineau.
A sufficient amount of PPE was purchased for the upcoming school year and the custodial team of the city has been strict with sanitary procedures to better protect and serve in the public schools. Otherwise the plan to reopen still remains unsettled as corona virus updates continues to develop; while health professionals and scientists gather more data as they learn about the virus.