Boston plans 2 charters to open in 2012

State must approve new in-district schools

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / July 21, 2011

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The Boston School Committee gave preliminary approval last night to opening two new in-district charter schools for fall 2012, although two members raised questions about an organization that would run one of the schools.

The Boston Teacher Residency program, which recruits and trains new teaching candidates for the city, would start a charter elementary school from scratch, and Unlocking Potential, an upstart nonprofit school-turnaround organization, would convert an academically struggling elementary school into a charter school. The exact locations of the schools have not yet been identified.

The school board unanimously approved the Boston Teacher Residency’s proposal with no discussion, but members Michael O’Neill and Claudio Martinez expressed hesitation about Unlocking Potential’s proposal.

“They don’t quite have a track record yet,’’ O’Neill said.

The proposal would be Unlocking Potential’s second partnership with the district. This month, the organization took over the Gavin Middle School in South Boston - at Superintendent Carol R. Johnson’s request - and converted it into UP Academy, an in-district charter school.

Johnson, who recommended the second partnership, told the members they were raising a legitimate issue.

In the end, the proposal received unanimous preliminary approval.

Both proposals will go to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for preliminary review. If the department likes the plans, the School Committee would then vote on a final application, which would also require state approval.

In an interview, Scott Given, Unlocking Potential’s chief executive, said his organization has the capacity, both financially and in human capital, to take on a second school.

“It’s going to be hard work,’’ said Given. “It will take a significant effort, but we wouldn’t be moving forward if we didn’t think we could complete the work at a high level of quality.’’

Johnson pitched the two in-district charter schools as part of a broader plan to provide better opportunities for students across the district.

A key part of that proposal calls for expanding several popular schools. It would move Boston Latin Academy from Dorchester to the former Hyde Park High School building. Boston Latin Academy’s building would then be renovated and house Boston Arts Academy, which now shares a building with Fenway High School. Splitting the two schools would allow both to enroll more students.

The proposal also calls for finding a larger building for the popular Eliot K-8 School, which is experiencing a shortage of space in the North End. To alleviate some crowding in the interim, Johnson is proposing to temporarily locate three classrooms in the nearby North Bennet Street School, a private trade school.

Johnson said students “need to get into a great school as quickly as possible.’’

The proposed expansions come just a few weeks after Boston closed or merged about 18 schools to reduce operating budget costs and a surplus of classroom space across the city.

But the city and the state are still paying off renovations at a handful of the shuttered schools, including a $41 million project at the old Hyde Park High. The Massachusetts School Building Authority warned the city this week that it might stop its 90 percent reimbursements for those projects and might seek to recoup past payments if the buildings remain idle.

The funding problem exemplifies how the school closings - initially pitched in the fall and repeatedly revised under public pressure - were a “poorly planned process’’ from the start, Richard Stutman, the teachers union president, said in an interview before the meeting.

“It’s typical of some School Department bungling,’’ Stutman said.

He also raised questions about a possible lack of transparency in the process in selecting organizations to run the new in-district charter schools, saying the district never sought bids publicly.

“It was truly done in secrecy,’’ Stutman said.

Matthew Wilder, a spokesman for the School Department, defended the proposal before the meeting, saying the plan to relocate schools would “allow significantly greater access for our students to some of the city’s best high schools.’’

He also said that the decision to go forward with the in-district charter schools did go through a public vetting process. In-district charter schools operate with greater freedom from central office mandates and teacher union contract rules.

At the meeting, School Committee members appeared receptive to the facility changes.

“I find the changes really exciting and look forward to the community process to hear what others think of it as well,’’ said member Mary Tamer.

The School Committee’s legal counsel indicated that the board might not have to vote in order for Johnson to make the changes. A series of meetings are planned for those affected by the plan.

During public comment, a few Boston Latin Academy teachers voiced opposition to moving the school to Hyde Park.

Janet Fillion, who has taught at Latin for 41 years, said that when the school got its current location in Dorchester about 20 years ago, the district promised it would be the academy’s permanent home, after bouncing around the city several times.

She also said the move would “devalue’’ the school because it would no longer be near the colleges, museums, and libraries in Boston proper.

“Hyde Park is just too far,’’ Fillion said. “Sending us that far from the center of academia is a slap in the face.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him on twitter @GlobeVaznis.