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Closing the gap

The Observer has always opposed charter schools because they take money from public schools, our last best hope for a decent country. He still does, but there's this guy named King.

John King is the charismatic founding co-director of Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. At 29, he's leaving after five years there for Yale Law School. The other co-director, Evan Rudall, is already at Columbia Law. What's going on here? Have they traded their commitment to urban education for partnerships at Cravath, Swain & Moore?

Not a chance. What they want to do is set educational and social policy in this country, and a law degree opens doors of agency and congressional mandarins.

"A law degree gets your access to certain conversations, certain opportunities," says King, 29, who learned this truth as a summer intern at the US Department of Education while a Harvard undergraduate. "People can be dismissive of educators."

"The bottom line is that public policy questions motivate me," he continues. "What happens to bad schools? If bad charter schools stay open, I'd agree that charter schools are not that different from district schools."

So how well are we doing on that score? "Not very well, in Massachusetts or nationally."

During its short five-year history, Roxbury Prep has gained national renown for proving disadvantaged urban kids of color every bit the equal of affluent, white suburban students. The US Department of Education has chosen the school in Mission Hill, which educates 180 youngsters in grades 6 through 8, one of eight national case studies to be examined in a book on charter schools.

What Roxbury Prep does, quite simply, is obliterate the achievement gap, "the critical civil rights issue of the day," says King.

There is not a white face among Roxbury Prep's 180 students, and that's troubling. Yet the power of youngsters seeing that all the aces in class are kids of color is undeniable. This racial profile may simply postpone the challenges of a multicultural society but, he says, the pluses outweigh the minuses: "We're filling a niche that wouldn't be filled."

Most of the kids arrive in lousy academic shape. But Roxbury Prep had the highest percentage of sixth-grade students scoring proficient or advanced on the 2003 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System math test of any public school in Boston, at 76 percent -- higher than students in the leafy suburbs of Concord, Weston, and Newton. On the eighth-grade science test, Roxbury Prep had the highest percentage of proficient and advanced of any public school in Boston, at 58 percent, with Brookline, Harvard, and Marblehead.

None of its graduating students has entered a regular Boston public school. Instead, they have opted for a mix of private, public, parochial, and charter schools.

All in all, wow.

But wait. Roxbury Prep is free of the oppressive strictures and labor contracts that Boston public schools face. Give any smart, dedicated public school principal the same freedoms and watch what happens.

Try two separate classes of English and another two of math every day. At least two hours of homework every night and longer school days. Teachers back in early August instead of a day or two before opening day. Kids expelled for the day if they hit one another. Once.

The playing field is not level. "That's why I'm going to law school," says King. "Policy has to change."

What's the key?

"A sense of urgency," he replies. "Why don't the mayor and Payzant (Boston public schools Superintendent Thomas Payzant) stand up to the teachers union and say things need to change? It's going to take a level of boldness we haven't had yet from political leadership."

"School saved my life," adds King, a black man who lost his mother when he was 8 and his father at 12. "That's the mindset that should drive policy. There should be moral outrage, like there was 10 years ago when kids were getting shot every other day. With the failure rates of kids of color two or three times that of white students, people should be holding sit-ins."

So how will Roxbury Prep maintain its excellence? One of the great challenges -- maybe the great challenge -- of good schools of all stripes is to prove themselves replicable when seminal leaders depart.

King agrees that Roxbury Prep has an asterisk after its name because of its high-octane staff, average age 26, from elite institutions. King will finish his PhD in education at Columbia's Teachers College while at Yale Law. Seventh-grade science teacher Sheri Cheng got her undergraduate and master's degree in ocean engineering from MIT. And so forth.

But the essence of Roxbury Prep should hold because of its command structure and academic spine. It operates with co-directors. King helped initiate Rudall's replacement, Joshua Phillips, who in turn will be there next fall to work with King's successor, science teacher Dana Lehman, who has administrative experience.

And Lehman, 27, a physics major at Swarthmore, echoes King's sense of urgency: "There are still a lot of people who don't believe students of our demographics can achieve academically."

Sam Allis's e-mail address is allis@globe.com. 

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