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ROSLINDALE

Charter schools draw raves, hits

Test scores high, but some see flaws

A lanky 13-year-old says he was suspended from school frequently in the past because he got into fights. The time out of the classroom caused his grades to suffer.

Now in the sixth grade, Prentis Douglas changed all that when he switched from Boston's regular public school system to Edward Brooke Charter School. Douglas doesn't fight any more. His grades are improving, and he aspires to go to college.

"Less people are bothering me," he said recently, smiling broadly. "It seems like some people been looking up to me, and it's been OK."

The Dorchester teen is a showcase student for Edward Brooke and a sister charter school, South Boston Harbor Academy. Similarly, the two schools themselves are emblematic of the city's charter school movement in many of its strengths and weaknesses.

The mission of Harbor Academy and Edward Brooke is to prepare students for college. Strict discipline, rigorous academic expectations, and dedicated teachers help nudge even the recalcitrant, disadvantaged, or fragile toward the goal. If high standardized test scores are any measure, the two schools are well on their way.

"It's about having the flexibility and freedom to implement those three pillars that make these schools a success," said Brett Peiser, founder of both.

For all the schools' success, critics say that both Peiser's schools have resegregated the classroom. Harbor Academy is 81 percent white, while the Boston school population has about 14 percent whites. Edward Brooke is 93 percent African-American, to the city's 47 percent blacks.

''If you want to have a population of students that reflects the demographics of the public schools, you don't create a little gated community," said Paul Dunphy, a policy analyst for Citizens for Public Schools, a private watchdog group.

Schools on the moveBoth schools are moving to new quarters this year, and Peiser hopes relocation will help mitigate the racial disparities. Edward Brooke just occupied an old parochial school building in Roslindale in January. South Boston Harbor Academy is moving to Dorchester next fall.

Still, to the critics, accolades for these two and the 12 other charter schools in Boston come at the expense of the rest of the system. The drumbeat of charges might result in a lawsuit accusing charter schools of discrimination, according to Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

''We have tremendous concern about the way charter schools are used to the detriment of improving the public schools," Wunsch said. ''Here are the poor public schools. They're supposed to do everything, serve everybody. The charter schools are touted, but they don't seem to be taking all the problem kids."

Peiser maintains that he and the other charter school officials try to recruit a broad spectrum of students in order to mirror Boston's polyglot population and work hard to keep them.

''That is not to say that every kid has had a successful career here," he conceded. ''These schools are not for everyone."

Recently, a visitor walked into Harbor Academy, currently housed in an old industrial building on the waterfront, and a student held the door open. Inside, the halls were silent except for the muted murmur of classroom instruction.

A strict code of discipline, enforced by merits and demerits, encourages good manners and respectful attention to teachers and other students. Students who accumulate enough merit points can participate in numerous outings and trips. This year, seniors are traveling to Paris.

Decorating the walls are colorful murals and photographs, as well as logos of prestigious colleges and universities. Each student is assigned to a group named after one, with the expectation that they will identify themselves early as college material.

Both Peiser's schools are small -- Harbor Academy with 337 students in grades 5 to 12 and Edward Brooke with 160 in fifth and sixth grades. Classes are small, too, with 20 or so students per teacher, giving ample room for individualized attention.

As Laura Saniuk-Heinig, a Harbor Academy seventh-grader put it: ''I like the teachers and all the support they give you. If you're having trouble, they help you."

"It's not a 100 percent solution," said Peiser, "It's a 101 percent solution. It's about all the little things we do."

The "little things" include checking homework assignments early in the day and keeping students who haven't completed them after school; requiring students who need extra help to attend Saturday classes; and expecting teachers to work 10-hour days and sometimes on Saturday.

'Energy in the air' "It's fabulous, absolutely fabulous," said Michelle McDonough, whose fifth-grade twins, Brighdy and Cate, attend Harbor Academy.

McDonough, of South Boston, had to be persuaded by her husband to take the children out of parochial school and enroll them at the academy, but quickly changed her mind after a visit.

"You could feel the energy in the air," she said. "We sat in on the classrooms, and the kids seemed so excited about everything. The discipline was amazing. No child spoke out of turn."

McDonough said her daughters, once shy, now have friends all over the city.

"My two were very frightened about coming from such an insular atmosphere," she said. "They made friends very, very quickly. Now, the phones ring off the hook at night. They're all calling each other -- somebody over in Mattapan, somebody in Dorchester. It's been very different for them, but it's been very good."

The view of McDonough, who is white, was seconded by Hope Thomas, who is African-American. Thomas, of Dorchester, said the academy has zero tolerance not only for racial conflict but for any name-calling. Thomas explained she chose to sign up her fifth-grade son, Robert, because she "wanted him to know there are other cultures out there."

After seven years of operation, said Peiser, all Harbor Academy's 10th-graders passed the English and math MCAS, the state's periodic assessment test. No others in the Boston system, except the two exam schools, got results like that, he said. While Edward Brooke, in its second year, has not been in business long enough for MCAS testing, its students showed improvement in both grades in every subject on another standardized exam, the Stanford Achievement Test, he said.

Skewed test scores?But it's not just about test scores, according to the critics.

"The absolute, inevitable consequence of creating these small, adequately funded schools is that the vast majority of children are in overcrowded, underfunded public schools," said critic Paul Dunphy.

Dunphy pointed out that Boston's charter schools cost the city more than $38 million for just over 4,000 children, while the total Boston school budget of about $500 million serves about 61,000. Charter schools are also allowed to solicit and accept millions of dollars in government, private, and foundation grants and loans not available to the rest of the system.

According to Dunphy, Edward Brooke and Harbor Academy, as well as most other charter schools, can skew test scores upward because of the populations they serve. The charter schools, he said, have fewer poor students, fewer special-needs students, and no students who can't speak English.

In the 2002-2003 school year, according to Dunphy, Harbor Academy had 37 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, one measure of poverty, and 11 percent needing special education, while Edward Brooke had 59 percent on the meal discount and 15 percent in special education. That compares to the Boston system's rate of 74 percent on discount, 19 percent in special education, and 24 percent English-language learners.

Wunsch said the ACLU is considering legal action to correct the imbalances.

To counter comparisons with the rest of the system, Peiser points to the gains of individual children in his charge, like Robert Thomas, who at several other schools was not able to shed a long-standing insecurity about his intelligence.

Now, his mother related, Robert tells her, " 'Mommy, I finally feel smart.' "

Connie Paige can be reached at cpaige@globe.com.

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