General Education News
Dept. of Elementary & Secondary Education Headlines - Mass D.O.E.
Salem Academy turns 10
SALEM — It’s not likely Rachel Hunt will ever forget her 30th birthday, and not only because she went to lunch that day with her future husband.
Earlier that day in February 2003, the Massachusetts Board of Education approved the charter for Salem Academy Charter School, a new public school that, in one form or another, had been on Hunt’s mind since her college days at Wesleyan University.
Hunt seemed an unlikely founder of a charter school. Not only was she young, but she was known locally mostly for the two years she spent as a Spanish teacher at Collins Middle School. And although the charter school had supporters, it also had detractors, including members of the Salem School Committee, which oversees the district public schools.
In that somewhat hostile environment, Hunt founded an independent public school that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year after a decade of growth. It has expanded from two grades with 88 students to a grade 6-12 school with 372 students.
Hunt, head of school at Salem Academy and now the mother of two young children, hasn’t done too shabbily herself. This month, she won a seat on the Salem School Committee. In fact, she topped the ticket in her first run for elective office. It’s hard not to conclude that the success of the charter school had a lot to do with the success of her campaign.
During the election, a man approached Hunt after a school forum — a man she recalled as an archenemy of the charter school from a decade ago. Hunt jokingly asked if he had changed his mind after 10 years.
“I have,” he said, “and I want you to know that.”
Signs abound that Salem Academy Charter School has changed a lot of minds. Last year, for example, about 40 percent of fifth-grade students in the district schools applied for admission to the charter school.
The Salem district schools, which have been struggling, now work more closely with the charter school and, in some ways, are following the lead of the little school in Shetland Park. To try to raise MCAS scores, the Salem School Department has contracted with Achievement Network, a private company that does periodic student assessments and follow-up coaching with teachers. Salem Academy Charter School has been working with Achievement Net for years.
It is both hard and easy to measure the success of the charter school. Although it has done well in many areas and is rated highly by the state, its success, in some instances, is measured by a relatively small student sampling. For example, 100 percent of graduates were accepted to college last year — but there were only about 20 graduates.
And although the school’s MCAS results are superior to the district’s at every level, they are below the state average in some instances.
Salem Academy surely has its limitations. Due to its size, it has more limited offerings in sports and extracurricular activities than district schools. Its physical plant within Shetland Park, a business and industrial complex, is not ideal. Students go to the Boys & Girls Club for gym classes and use city fields and the Jewish Community Center in Marblehead for sports.
There are plans, however, to build a gymnasium in conjunction with Shetland Park, its landlord.
But Salem Academy prides itself on a school culture focused on learning and high standards. The school schedule is 15 days longer than most public schools, and the school day is longer — classes start at 8:30 a.m. and end at 4 p.m.
The school sends out a clear message that college is the goal.
There are college banners all over the school. At a College Day held each year, students wear college gear and eat cupcakes decorated with small pennants from the colleges attended by teachers and administrators. At other times, college T-shirts are handed out as prizes to students.
“Our goal is every student will be accepted to a four-year college,” Hunt said.
When a grade or class does especially well on the high-stakes MCAS exam, the school holds a pep rally — like the kind most schools hold for athletic teams.
“That’s an example of a conscious, defined effort to build a school culture that celebrates learning,” said Sean O’Neil, the executive director of Salem Academy.
The charter school has worked to make Advanced Placement, or AP courses — the most rigorous offered at public schools — the rule rather than the exception. This year, a whopping 70 percent of students in grades 11 and 12 are enrolled in at least one AP course.
The charter school’s unflinching focus on academics has not gone unnoticed. It has been ranked among the top schools in the state and nation by Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report.
In 10 years, the city’s independent charter school has earned a reputation as a place where standards are high and achievement is honored.
“We work at that,” O’Neil said. “What I tell kids is, ‘You need to understand — if you’re a student here, it’s cool to be smart.’”
At hearing proponents say charter schools would offer educational advantages to Fall River
FALL RIVER —Those who support the city’s proposed charter schools told members of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Friday that Fall River’s students and parents need more education choices.
And, in that regard, the delivered message sounded similar for each school, New Heights Charter Academy and Argosy Collegiate Charter School. The same held for the long-existing Atlantis Charter School, which seeks to expand its program to include high school grades. But Fall River has a little less than 1,400 available charter school seats.
At a hearing held in Government Center’s City Council chamber, state Sen. Michael Rodrigues told the board, “As a state senator, I am deeply invested in educational opportunities. I’ve always been an avid supporter of charter schools.”
Proponents of the schools spoke of low college attainment citywide.
“High school graduation is no longer a goal for districts,” said Omari Walker, the lead founder for New Heights, a proposed grades-6-through-13 early college high school. “It is imperative that our students leave school both college- and career-ready.”
Less than 15 percent of low-income students graduate with a four-year degree, Walker said.
“Our mission is to provide urban students an opportunity to develop career pathways to and through college,” Walker said.
Promising a “no excuses” school, Walker said, “We know if you give students the excuse to fail, they will. But we know the opposite is true as well.”
Argosy, a college preparatory program, renewed its charter school application from the previous year, with the founding group embracing feedback and acting on it “in ways that deeply improved the proposal,” said lead founder Kristen Pavao.
Pavao said, despite the “great work being done by skillful educators across Fall River,” as a collective, “our children perform in the bottom 10 percent of state assessments.
“We’re not interested in providing a good school for Fall River students. We’re fiercely invested in providing an excellent one,” Pavao said.
“The families of Fall River need expanded educational opportunities, and they need it now,” said Susan Walsh, chief academic officer for Building Excellent Schools, an Argosy advocate.
“We are very committed to our kids,” said Carlos Cesar, president of the Flint Neighborhood Association, backing Argosy. “It’s about a choice.”
Amy Blanchette, another member of the association and the single parent of an 8-year-old boy, echoed Cesar’s statements.
“I don’t feel my son is being challenged. But if I want to put him in a better school, I don’t have the option,” Blanchette said. New Height’s supporters said they were disappointed when the School Committee voted down its original proposal last summer. BayCoast Bank President Nicholas Christ cited a survey of parents indicating that 90 percent of them wanted their children to “continue on to college education.”
But “the most significant hurdle is the ability to pay for college education,” Christ said. New Heights helped remove that hurdle. “If you can get out of Grade 13 with two college years paid for ,I don’t think there’s more you could ask for.”
Bristol Community College President John Sbrega said New Heights “is not unique for the country, but it is unique for our students here in Fall River.”
“Part of our mission is to be a complement to the traditional public school system in Fall River,” said Atlantis Charter School director Robert Beatty, adding that Atlantis has a nearly “20-year track record of success.”
“I would ask that you first consider favorably Atlantis,” Beatty said, while offering praise for the other proposed schools.
Only two speakers spoke against the proposals: Fall River Educators Association President Rebecca Cusick and School Committee member Joseph Martins.
Cusick wondered how truly innovative the proposals are.
“If we are to divert considerable resources from our existing schools, we must be sure we are not leaving our neediest students behind,” she said.
Martins’ comments were pointed at New Heights. He said, if approved, the school would “siphon Chapter 70 funds."
"New Heights is not needed in Fall River,” Martins said.
LETTER: Informing the discussion on charter schools
Charter schools were envisioned as centers of innovation that complement the traditional public schools. Importantly, charters should also learn from the success of local districts. The best districts and charters take these founding principles to heart.
In Fall River, the relationship is growing between Atlantis Charter School and the Fall River Public Schools. There are great reforms at FRPS, including the improvement from Level 4 to Level 1 at Kuss. Atlantis learned from that success. In return, Atlantis has supported K-8 design at FRPS and is engaged with the efforts to reduce absenteeism.
There is great value to charters that complement their local districts. So with that, let’s dispense with misleading claims that needlessly confuse the debate:
First, charters are public schools. The claim that they are “private” often implies a lack of accountability. Charters were designed to be independent of local school districts, but they are directly accountable to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Charter accountability standards in Massachusetts have been rated the toughest in the nation.
Second, it is unfair to generalize about educational approach among the 80 charters that have opened in Massachusetts. Whether or not one agrees with the “No Excuses” model, it is only one of a number of approaches. It’s not Atlantis’s model, and it is misleading to suggest that it is the common approach.
Third, demographics at charters should compare fairly with local districts. Since identifying a special needs population lower than FRPS, Atlantis has improved its recruitment, and recent incoming classes have met the DESE’s goals for our special needs population.
Attrition at Atlantis is very low compared to all schools, including traditional schools (4%), and Atlantis didn’t lose a single special education student last year. Attrition rates do vary across schools, but all the more reason to avoid generalizations.
Lastly, Fall River’s creditworthiness should not be a factor here. A recent report by Moody’s about possible negative impact of charters highlights risk factors that do not apply here, including a district’s weak capacity to adjust operations (FRPS has shown a robust capacity to adjust operations, and the recent decision on Henry Lord is an example) and liberal state approval processes (there is still a cap on charter schools in Massachusetts, and the state has one of the most rigorous approval processes in the country).
Most importantly, for every student who leaves a traditional public school for a charter school, the district receives a 225 percent reimbursement over six years for the per-pupil funding that transfers to the charter. (Districts receive 100 percent reimbursement the first year and 25 percent reimbursement for the subsequent 5 years.) This is the most generous reimbursement policy in the nation, and it supports districts in making necessary adjustments based on enrollment projections.
By all means, please do consider carefully the opportunities in Fall River to expand successful education reform in general, and charter schools in particular. But please do so with a thorough explanation of the facts.
Robert L. Beatty is executive director of Atlantis Charter School, Fall River.
Boston Renaissance introduces Chinese to local students
By Ling-Mei Wong
Boston Renaissance Charter Public School is not your average school.
Located in Hyde Park, classes include art, music and Mandarin. The goal is to develop a well-rounded Renaissance child.
Kindergarten students can sing the “Nihao Song” together, compare their heights and discuss the weather. “It’s raining! Xia yu le!” was repeated with gusto during a recent lesson.
Kindergarten students at Boston Renaissance Charter Public School participate in Mandarin class. (Image courtesy of Ling-Mei Wong.)
The Mandarin program was launched in 2009 for 88 K1 and K2 students, taught by Jinhui Xu, the school’s director of global outreach. Today, 710 out of 944 students take Mandarin at Boston’s largest elementary school. The program will be expanded to every grade — from kindergarten to sixth — in 2015.
“I thought it was important to learn Mandarin for the role China plays in the world economy,” said Roger Harris, superintendent of Boston Renaissance. “It’s important to learn the culture and respect for Chinese culture and language. Students can learn the language and culture for an economic perspective. Too often, urban students are not exposed to Mandarin. We recognize the value of the language.”
As the students develop cultural awareness, the school plans to add a civics component to Chinese class.
“In the future, we hope students understand the history of the Chinese in America,” Harris said. “There are not very many schools that discuss the role of the Chinese people in U.S. history and development.”
Boston Renaissance opened in 1995 at 250 Stuart Street, then moved to Hyde Park in 2010. Its student body is 66 percent African American, 28 percent Hispanic and 82 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. In addition to the arts, music and Mandarin classes, the school also provides free on-site medical, dental and vision services, to remove barriers to learning.
“Renaissance focuses on a holistic philosophy, going beyond English language arts, math and science,” Harris said. “We believe in educating the whole child.”