Charter School Will Do Things The Hard Way

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Boston parents will likely have a number of new charter schools to choose from next year. At a hearing this week, not a single person spoke against any of the 15 new charters vying for spots in in the city.

Charter schools are publicly funded, autonomous schools that typically operate without teachers unions. They have been praised for innovation but also criticized for only educating the best students. They almost always start from scratch, but there a few charter school leaders trying to do something much more difficult.

A New Approach For Some Charter Schools

The Patrick Gavin Middle School in South Boston is not the city's worst school, but it's not the best either. Less than one-third of its students scored "proficient" on last year's standardized testing. Next year — if everything goes as planned — the Gavin will become a charter school. It's new name will be UP Academy: "Up" stands for "Unlocking Potential."

The charter designation will bring many changes, including uniforms.

"We have some very stylish black polo shirts," said Scott Given, the head of Unlocking Potential, a nonprofit group. "We have a strict dress code. If a student is not in uniform, they don't go to class. That's one of the types of high expectations that we have."

Charter schools almost always start from scratch, but there a few charter school leaders trying to do something much more difficult.

Other expectations include quiet hallways and good attendance.

You might expect Boston school officials to resent handing the school over to Given, but that's not the case. Boston officials asked him to take over.

"We want to learn from a variety of different strategies to improve our schools," said Boston Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson.

Recently Johnson has closed or overhauled more than 12 schools. So far she's done this by replacing the principals and teachers.

"The other way is to outsource an existing school to a group that has a track record of providing excellence and allowing them to help us do it," Johnson said.

Johnson promised many of the same autonomous characteristics of a normal charter school: the ability to have a longer school day and freedom to set the curriculum.

So you might think lots of charter schools would jump at the chance to prove they could fix a failing public school. But Johnson says that wasn't the case.

Given was the only charter leader willing to do it. He agreed to take all of the existing kids and recruit new ones from the entire universe of students. That means special education, kids learning English — everyone.

Some Doubt Charter Schools' Outreach Efforts

But not everyone thinks Given is keeping his word. Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said Given's group is only reaching out to kids in "advanced work" classes — basically the best students.

"I've talked to two separate advanced work teachers who have told me that the only kids in their room who got the applications to apply to UP Academy were advanced work students," Stutman said. "Both of the classes have students in them who are not advanced work students. It's a combination class, but the kids who are coded as advanced work students, they alone got the invitation."

Stutman said the teachers wouldn't talk to WBUR for fear of losing their jobs. But if it's true that Given is trying to stack the deck, it would go against the entire mission of the school.

At a hearing Tuesday night, school officials addressed Stutman's allegations.

"BPS gave UP Academy a list of every single fifth grade student in our system so they could mail to every single one of them, and they did so," said Ann Waterman-Roy, of Boston Public Schools.

"They've reached out to all of the Gavin Middle School's current sixth and seventh grade students by phone and mail. And we have full confidence that they are deeply committed to making sure that every student in our system knows about this opportunity."

The students enrolled at the Gavin will automatically get in, but they still have to fill out an application. The rest of the students will be chosen through a lottery. So far, more than 500 have submitted applications.

Students' Take On Charters Vs. Traditional Schools

If you visit the Gavin school and talk to the students, they know what's happening.

Seventh grader Aracelis Hernandez was walking home from school last week, wearing a button that said, "Born to party. Forced to work." She's not happy about the change, but said she will probably go to the charter because it will be too hard to find another school.

Her friend Mayisel Soto said her mom is thrilled that she has the opportunity to attend a charter school.

"For me, public schools are not focused enough," Soto said.

Hernandez chimed in, "If you are off-task they'll tell you when to get your act together."

They both worried UP Academy will be more difficult.

School advocates say they will be watching to make sure UP Academy doesn't push out students who struggle, and that they recruit all students, not just the best ones.

If this experiment does work, Boston's traditional schools stand to learn a lot about how some charters have gotten the good results they have. If it doesn't work, Boston will have to look for other ways to turn schools around.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Superintendent Carol Johnson offered the charter schools the ability to operate without the teachers union. In fact, teachers at the school will be in the union, but under a more flexible contract than their peers at traditional Boston public schools.


This program aired on December 9, 2010.


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