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Boston’s Renaissance School Makes Gains Through Innovation

BOSTON — Creating “innovation schools” is a pivotal part of the Patrick administration’s education agenda. Last month the state announced $281,000 in grants to 29 potential innovation schools across the commonwealth. Gov. Deval Patrick said the funding would give local communities “the flexibility to be creative in their approach to helping all students achieve at high levels.”

The Renaissance Charter Public School, an elementary school in Boston, has won an innovation grant to work with the city’s public school system to explore a possible partnership for middle and high school students.

Every day, yellow school buses pull up to the Renaissance school in Hyde Park, bringing students from 11 Boston neighborhoods, just about every corner of the city.

Founded in 1995, the Renaissance is the largest elementary school in Boston, with about 1,000 students in kindergarten through grade six. The school’s innovation mission starts with the curriculum, which includes instruction in Mandarin.

Mandarin classes began as a pilot program for kindergarten students three years ago with a grant from an organization run by Harvard Business School students. Since then, the program has grown thanks to federal grants, including $1.3 million from the U.S. Department of Education.

‘We Need To Be Thinking Globally’

“Folks think we’re doing cutting-edge stuff by offering Mandarin to elementary school students,” Roger Harris, superintendent at the Renaissance school, said. “But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We need to be thinking globally. We need to look at what other countries are doing.  We need to ask ourselves what’s the job market going to look like 15 years from now? What are we preparing our kids for?”

“We need to ask ourselves what’s the job market going to look like 15 years from now? What are we preparing our kids for?”
– Roger Harris, superintendent

Harris came to the charter school after spending 23 years in the Boston Public School system. At Renaissance, many remember him for his successes at the Timilty Middle School in Roxbury.

His tenure at the Renaissance schools has not been without its problems. Before the school moved to its current location — a six-acre site featuring new construction and renovated buildings off Hyde Park Avenue — the school was on probation, under orders to relocate from its old site in downtown Boston.

“The building was not conducive to the children. It was a 15-story high rise with four elevators, cafeteria was in the basement of the school,” Harris said.  “We had no playground, no outdoor facilities, no parking. It was a major, major challenge for us.”

The board of the Renaissance used money from the sale of that building to move to Hyde Park in the fall of 2010.

Keeping Arts In Education

The arts are a key part of the curriculum Renaissance.

The Voices of Renaissance Choir, a chorus of 150 students and teachers who rehearse before school at 7:30 every morning, recently performed at the White House and has shared the stage with the Boston Pops.

Students learn to play piano, and read and compose music in a state-of-the-art lab, which may be one of the quietest rooms in the building. You can see 30 students fingering keyboards, but you can’t hear them — their teacher communicates with them, as a group and individually, using headsets.

There’s also instruction in visual arts and dance.

Evelyn Lee-Jones, director of visual and performing arts, says every child gets some form of art each day.

“So the students are, they are going to be well-rounded by the time they leave Renaissance,” Lee-Jones said.

Superintendent Harris says that’s central to their mission.

“From the day that Renaissance was created there’s been a strong emphasis on educating the whole child, so dance  music, art — what we call the specialties — have been part of our curriculum,” Harris said. “We believe that if we provide opportunities for kids and support for kids they’ll do well on MCAS but they’ll do better in life.”

After struggling early on with MCAS test scores, over the past three years the Renaissance has made some gains in academic performance.

In 2010, the Massachusetts Department of Education gave the school a high performance rating in both English language arts and mathematics.

Community Partnerships

The school still needs to improve scores overall, especially in sub-groups such as special education. So the school has beefed up its literacy program and, Harris says, with 70 percent of students coming from low-income families, the school has also introduced support services to remove obstacles to learning.

“We’ve learned from the past many kids have cognitive problems, and one problem was vision, because in the past when students were diagnosed with vision problems, we’d inform the parents and two to three months later, nothing had been done,” Harris said. “Students still did not have glasses and were still having problems in the classroom.”

A partnership with the New England Eye Institute seeks to remedy that problem.

Jalali Mitcheka, the head nurse at Renaissance, explains the school has a full vision center.

“With an ophthalmologist that comes in twice a week doing the regular screenings that are required for children but also full eye exams, where they provide glasses prescriptions,” Mitcheka said.

There is also a similar partnership with the Tufts dental program.

“So we have a dentist that comes in usually twice a month, a dental hygienist comes in twice a month,” Mitcheka said. “The dentist does the official exams and things, X-rays, that sort of thing. The dentist can do full screenings and such and the hygienist does the cleaning.”

Mitcheka says these services function like a neighborhood health clinic and Harris says it’s all about partnerships.

“It’s not big budget. It’s just providing space and developing partnerships with community organizations. We have partnerships with the New England Home for Little Wanderers, they provide psychiatrists and psychologists for our kids,” Harris said. “So again it’s a model that can be replicated in the city in other schools in the country, low budget.”

Harris says parents have been pressing him to replicate the Renaissance school and open a middle and high school. Using the state innovation grant, he’s exploring the possibility of a partnership with the Boston Public School system. If approved, that expansion could happen as soon as 2014.

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