Going Beyond in Lawrence, Mass.

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Pioneer Institute believes that all kids deserve access to a great education. That’s why we have always supported choices for parents and students, whether through interdistrict programs, vocational-technical schools, private and parochial schools, or high-quality charter schools. Earlier this year, we visited Community Day Charter Public Schools, an excellent group of schools serving grades K-8 students in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Lawrence is an older, industrial city, marked by high unemployment, a significant crime issue and a dysfunctional government. Its school district is in state receivership due to chronic underperformance and criminal malfeasance by the previous superintendent. Community Day has played a vital role in improving the prospects for children in the city. We wanted to learn more about why LCDCPS is such a success. In the video clip below, parents, current and former students, teachers and school staff share their experiences:

Community Day’s 8th graders have consistently scored far in excess of the district average on MCAS exams in all tested subjects.  95% scored Proficient or above on the 2013 MCAS exam in both ELA and math, compared to the district average of 48% in ELA and 31% in math. Community Day’s 8th graders ranked #1 in science and #2 in math, across the state. The school was commended in a Harvard study for its “extraordinary level of collaboration between and among teachers, parents, and school leaders.”

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]“The teachers always taught us to put our best foot forward in the toughest situations, and not to just settle for passing or having average grades, but to excel.” – Keeanna Abreu, Class of 2010, on what Community Day’s motto “Go Beyond” means to her[/quote]

Under the leadership of Lawrence’s superintendent Jeff Riley, the Lawrence Public Schools have made progress. The percentage of district students scoring Proficient or above in mathematics increased between 2012 and 2013 in grades 3 (+17, from 39 to 56 percent), 5 (+11, from 27 to 38 percent), 8 (+11, from 19 to 30 percent), and 10 (+10, from 34 to 44 percent).  We applaud that progress but we are also fully cognizant of the slope of the climb kids in Lawrence must make.

In 2012, over 4,000 Lawrence children languished on waiting lists  to enroll in the city’s charter schools. They cannot afford to wait years for serious reforms to take effect – they need options now. Community Day has plans to expand to 400 students in grades K-8 by 2019, and it is partnering with the Lawrence Public Schools district to run the Community Day Arlington Elementary School. Other charter operators are also getting involved, but as  Pioneer Executive Director Jim Stergios noted last year, at most 1,500 out of Lawrence’s 13,000 district students will be served by these changes.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]“I wish there were a lot more charter schools out there so more kids in our community could have the opportunity that both of my kids have.” – Juana Hilario, Parent, CDCPS[/quote]

More Massachusetts schoolchildren have an opportunity to benefit from the quality programs that charter schools like Community Day provide, if the state legislature enacts a bill that would lift the cap on charter schools in 29 low-performing school districts. As we’ve noted in numerous opinion pieces, our charter schools are a nationally recognized success story.  In Boston, according to a Stanford University study published earlier this year, charter schools are doing more to close achievement gaps than any other group of public schools in the country. The typical Boston charter student gains the equivalent of over 12 months of additional learning in reading and 13 more months in math each year. A 2009 Boston Foundation report found that Boston charter schools dramatically outperformed both district and pilot schools (semi-autonomous district schools created in response to charters). It found that the academic impact from a year spent in a Boston charter was comparable to that of a year in one of the city’s elite exam schools and, in middle-school math, equivalent to one-half of the achievement gap between black and white students. It is time to spread the successes of the Community Day and Boston charter programs to more cities and towns throughout Massachusetts.

With cities like Washington, DC, opening the doors to more charter schools, their students are on a rising trajectory that is remarkable.  Currently, 42 percent of DC’s schoolchildren attend charter schools.  As the recent Nation’s Report Card demonstrated, the DC schools are improving faster than any other jurisdiction in the country.  Allowing the 4,000 schoolchildren on the city’s charter school waitlist to attend charters would get Lawrence near the place where 42 percent of its kids are served by charter schools. That would be real reform – and given LCDCPS’ success, there is no reason why the adults should continue to block the schoolhouse door.