Two new charter schools for City on a Hill

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For the past decade and a half, February has served as the month during which the state’s Board of Education votes on proposed charter schools. The process is a long one, involving during the previous year the submission of concepts, detailed applications, revised applications, interviews with proponents and evaluations by the Charter School Office, which is today located within the state’s Department of Education.

This year, the state’s education commissioner Mitch Chester has recommended a handful of the original 22 charter applications move forward. At next Tuesday’s education board meeting, final votes will be taken on the 5 new charters and 11 charter expansions recommended by the department.

If all of the charters recommended by the department move forward, there will be 1,600 new charter seats in Boston, with the percentage of Boston public students in Boston public charters closing in on the 18 percent threshold established with the 2010 education reform law. New Bedford is different. In the Whaling City, there are currently few options for parents including two charter schools (Alma del Mar and Global Learning charter schools), a handful of Catholic schools (the All Saints, Holy Family-Holy Name, and St. James-St. John schools), and private options like Our Sisters School, an excellent all-girl middle school option.

Two of the applications that made it through the department’s review and are up for a board approval were submitted by City on a Hill Charter School, a charter provider that currently operates a 280-student high school in Roxbury. CoaH is seeking approval of a second school in Boston in 2013, and the creation of an additional affiliated school in New Bedford in 2014. Each of the new schools would serve 280 students.

The original City on a Hill charter was one of the first charter schools approved in Massachusetts and currently has 10 applicants for every available freshman seat.

Overall Commonwealth charter schools perform very well compared to their district and unionized (so-called Horace Mann) charter peers. Among Boston schools serving 6th graders, 8 of the top 11 performers on the MCAS were in Commonwealth charter schools; among 7th graders, 7 of the top 11 were in Commonwealth charters; among 8th graders, 6 of the top 11 were in Commonwealth charters. In all grades tested before high school (3-8), charter schools held the number one position on the MCAS. And among high school students, excluding the city’s two exam schools (Boston Latin and Boston Latin Academy), Commonwealth charters occupied 5 of the top 7 spots. Commonwealth charter students topped all other schools in each of these tests—again, with the exception of the 10th grade MCAS where the exam schools, which do not select students by lottery as do charters took first and second place, leaving charter schools to take third place.

With 900 applicants for the 90 open slots available each year, it is a no-brainer for the Board to allow CoaH to replicate in Boston. The justification for the New Bedford affiliate is even stronger.

The district schools in the City of New Bedford fare poorly on the MCAS, with 10th graders on English Language Arts languishing near rock bottom in the entire state and with the outrageously high cumulative high school dropout rate of 28.5 percent.

Compare that record to the results to be found at City on a Hill.

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Moreover, recognizing that the MCAS is a floor and not the goal line, CoaH is, like many other charter schools, tracking where their students go and whether they complete a college degree:

We know that with the right supports our students can get into college. It is our job to provide them with the academic, social, and financial literacy skills necessary to complete college. Approximately 24% of Hispanic and 28% of Black Boston Public School graduates graduate from a two- or four-year college within six years (Center for Labor Market Studies, Getting to the Finish Line. Boston: 2008). Of our last five graduating classes, 75% of students have either graduated or are still enrolled in college.

Erica Brown, executive director of City on a Hill charter school describes in her own words why the school is seeking two replications at the Tuesday Board of Education meeting.

The New Bedford Standard-Times has it right with a recent editorial giving full support to the proposed CoaH school. The Standard-Times notes that in opposing the CoaH school proposal, New Beford mayor Jon Mitchell

asks Chester to consider the positive changes being made in the city’s system, starting with an inventory of the “profound” and “dramatic” changes under way in New Bedford. He points out the superintendent search; a newly signed teachers contract that addresses seniority, evaluations and performance pay; the expansion of Advanced Placement and teacher home-visit programs; and steps taken to address the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s concerns regarding facilities, principals, attendance and more.

These reforms will over time, one hopes, lead to more than the modest improvements we have seen through other “in-district” efforts at reform. Twenty years into education reform, we have seen seemingly uncountable efforts to reform the district schools from within, including pilot, Horace Mann, Commonwealth pilot and innovation schools; significant new resources; significant hiring; new contracts; and other seemingly “dramatic” and “profound” changes. I don’t want to diminish in any way the hard work, the good will, and the political challenges each of these efforts required. But none of these efforts can hold a candle to the game-changing impacts of a flexible, autonomous Massachusetts charter school like City on a Hill.

Crossposted at’s Rick the Schoolhouse. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.