Making Beacon Hill Inviting to Young Families

December 17, 2013
By

Jacqueline and Matt Freeman loved Beacon Hill. They met, married and made their home here. They loved walking everywhere, seeing neighbors, being near the Charles River, Starbucks and the shops on Charles Street.

But only a year and a half after the first of their three sons was born, they left. “The first and foremost reason we left was the school issue,” said Jacqueline Freeman. Neither parent wanted a private school education for their children; instead they wanted a topnotch public school populated by students of diverse socio-economic backgrounds.

They found what they were looking for in Newtonville. “I love that we now live between a banker and a driveway paver,” said Jacqueline,  “and that my boys can walk to a school where the kids’ parents range from carpenters to executives.”

According to a 2007-2008 Boston Public School (BPS) survey, 70% of the children born on Beacon Hill do not grow up here. “Beacon Hill is not inviting to parents of school-age children if they can’t afford a place to live or a good public school,” said Freeman.

It is why community members who wrote the Plan for the Neighborhood in 2011 decided that the fourth aspiration should be that Beacon Hill be a place where families of all ages and financial capacities thrive.

Public Schools

A newly-formed non-profit called The Downtown Schools for Boston set out to make that aspiration happen. Founded by several Beacon Hill parents last year, it now comprises 500 families who want downtown children to be able to attend quality public schools nearby that reflect Boston’s diversity so that families like the Freemans can stay in the city.

And their voices are being heard. “[Now] officials at City Hall and at Boston Public Schools (BPS) regularly talk about the need for schools downtown and the high level of interest from parents, as well as specific issues such as the lack of schools near the Fenway and Back Bay.  So we feel the message has not only been heard, it has become part of their thinking,” said Bruce Kiernan, one of Downtown Schools leaders. Mayor-Elect Marty Walsh has a very strong commitment to education, he added, and the group hopes his administration will move schools forward, recognizing that downtown neighborhoods are an important part of the change.

Downtown Schools is now focusing on building a volunteer base in each downtown neighborhood not only to collaborate but also to handle issues specific to their locations. It also is encouraging BPS to form a task force, which would include them, to develop a plan to guide decisions about where schools are needed. In the meantime, Kiernan said the group intends to keep everyone focused on bringing schools back to the downtown neighborhoods, and, as Mayor Thomas Mennino advised, “Hold their feet to the fire.”

Housing

A 2005-2010 analysis of 1,195 unit sales by Brewster and Berkowitz revealed that the cost difference in owning a two-bedroom home and a three-bedroom home is nearly 1 million dollars.

Providing affordable housing for young middle-class families citywide has been slow, despite goals set by both Mayor Menino and Governor Deval Patrick. According to a Times report, housing for families wasn’t even discussed by panelists participating in an October forum about the challenges of housing sponsored by Suffolk and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

In its review of the proposed Government Center Garage Redevelopment Project, the Beacon Hill Civic Association petitioned developers to consider including three-bedroom housing units suitable for families. It has also charged an ad hoc subcommittee, chaired by John Achatz, to look into possible uses, including multi-family housing, of the Unitarian Universalist and Suffolk University buildings now, or soon-to-be, on the market.

New Programs

Recognizing the need for more adequate outdoor play space for children ages five to twelve, the Friends of the Esplanade Playspace, founded by Tani Marinovich and Jean Egan, successfully raised funds to construct an outdoor playground at the foot of Fiedler Footbridge. Opened in 2011, its climbing structure, zip line, swings and other equipment keep children healthy while also encouraging social interaction.

Scouting was given new life this year in Beacon Hill and Back Bay, where more than 100 kids, 80 families and 40 volunteers now participate in Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Spearheaded by Beacon Hillers Tara Gohlmann and Michelle Vilms, troops bring together neighborhood children who spend their days scattered around Greater Boston in various private and public schools. Vilna Shul, Park Street School and the Advent Church provide significant time and resources for the programs, which are reasonably priced with financial aid available. From camping to selling cookies to learning about technology and leadership, the Scouts’ enthusiasm runs high.

Founded in 1966, Hill House has grown significantly and every year offers new and popular programs of athletic, creative and intellectual nature to children ages newborn to 12 years. About 2000 children enroll in Hill House programs every year from Beacon Hill, Back Bay, West End and other downtown neighborhoods. Hill House offers the type of youth activities normally available only to residents of the suburbs.

Like the Freemans, North End residents Tamala and Ben Levin love living and working in the city – its walkability, culture, sporting events, recreation, green spaces and all else it offers. They have an 11-month old baby now. “We’re like most young couples, confronted with the decision of what is the right fit for us,” said Ben Levin.

All of their friends with young children decided to move to the suburbs. “But we were very focused on finding ways to best balance time with our family and time at work,” he said, “and feel strongly that living in the city gives us the best chance of finding a good balance.”

The Levins are now renovating a home they purchased on Garden Street in which they plan to move this spring. Unlike five years ago when the Freemans faced their decision, the Levins can see that public education, which they too would prefer for their daughter, is becoming a top priority here. They now have hope that proper opportunities are available to them when their daughter is of school age.

And if the Beacon Hill community has its way, those opportunities will be there.

Next, the Beacon Hill Times will delve into what the community has done and what it still needs to do to support the Plan’s vision that historic architecture and character are preserved while new technologies and green living are encouraged.  Send your thoughts, comments and accomplishments you know about to suzannebesser@me.com. They’ll be compiled with others’ thoughts in subsequent articles.

  • Downtown Schools for Boston

    Thanks very much for the article, Suzanne (and the editors). The plan for the neighborhood will only be valuable if we follow up on it, and this is very helpful in doing that. And thank you for highlighting the importance of schools to the health of our neighborhoods.

  • http://erstwhiledear.com/ Rachael Ringenberg

    Great goals! My husband and I have two young daughters, we are going on our sixth year living on the hill. We are closely following the discussion of city schools. It would be an enormous accomplishment for Boston to figure out how to allow young families to flourish here and be part of the public school system.

  • Noah Cushing

    My wife and I were in a similar situation when our son was born a little over 6 years ago. We moved primarily because of the school situation and the lack of any nearby public school options.

    A year and a half ago, with our son in pre-K in Melrose, we decided we missed the city too much to stay away. We sorted out the school situation (Park Street School, which we love!), sold our house, and moved to the Back Bay last summer. Our long term goal is to be back in Beacon Hill.

    Bottom line is that if the city wants families in the city, it has to make downtown schools a priority.

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