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students at charter school
From left, Erikson Barbosa, Dylian Elias, and Jeremy Fernandes listen to headmaster Mike Mayo at the Uphams Corner Charter School in South Boston. Under the state's funding formula, Boston taxpayers pay $9,590 per student. (Globe Staff Photo / Janet Knott)

Urban charter schools score a win

Page 2 of 2 -- Charter school supporters said the findings about urban charters bolster their argument that broader educational choice and small, autonomous schools can lead to better student achievement.

"This is what happens when schools are given increased flexibility, and with that flexibility comes very high standards," said Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter School Association.

But Paul Reville, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy at Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth or MassINC, said the jury is still out on charters' effectiveness.

Critics say funding rule unfair to district schools
It costs a district more to send a student to a charter school than to traditional schools. (Today's Globe)

"I don't think the evidence on charter schools' educational achievement is conclusive," he said.

Critics note that charters as a group still trail their traditional school counterparts on state tests, yet they typically enroll lower percentages of limited-English speakers or children with significant disabilities.

The Globe reviewed five years of MCAS results and compared MCAS proficiency rates for charter school students in math and English with local and state averages in 39 of the 50 charter schools now open in Massachusetts. The analysis did not include 11 schools because they test fewer than 10 students, which excludes them from state Department of Education data.

Urban charter schools as a group also narrowly outperformed their local district schools the previous two years.

However, some urban charter schools ranked among the state's worst, even when compared with schools with similar demographics. At Benjamin Banneker Charter School in Cambridge, just 6 percent of the sixth grade achieved proficiency in math. No fourth-grader at Lowell Community Charter School achieved proficiency in math or English.

Some observers warn against equating MCAS scores with school success, and education officials caution against comparing charters with public schools because charter schools were created to be independent and innovative.

"To lump them all together is at odds with the basic charter school concept," said Kristin McIntosh, the education department's associate commissioner for charter schools.

Kevin Andrews is principal at the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester, where last year 86 percent of the seventh-graders scored proficient or higher on the MCAS English exam. The school, pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, ranked third in a pool of 99 demographically similar schools, according to the business alliance's analysis. The Neighborhood school is smaller than a typical public school, with just 200 students overall and 22 students per class. Students get a lot of attention, sometimes working with more than one teacher in the same classroom.

Andrews sees the students' progress, and strides by other city charters, as testimony that children from all backgrounds can succeed in school if put in the right situation and pushed to do well.

"We don't necessarily have the best and the brightest," he said. "We take the weak, the poor, the hungry. We take these kids where they are, and we don't let that get in our way."

The approach seems to be popular: An assistant at the Neighborhood School said she receives 40 calls a week from parents wanting to enroll their child.

Around the corner from the Neighborhood School is the Patrick O'Hearn Elementary School, a public school where students with Down syndrome and severe developmental delays study beside children developing at the expected rate for their age. O'Hearn's consistently high MCAS scores are about even with Neighborhood's -- a bit lower in English but higher in math. O'Hearn, which includes pre-kindergarten through grade five, also has about 200 students, but its class sizes are larger than the charter's.

The school's principal, Bill Henderson, says it is the responsibility of traditional public schools to educate the neediest children. At O'Hearn, for example, a teacher's aide works almost full-time with one 8-year-old who has severe disabilities, uses a wheelchair, and is unable to speak.

"You just wouldn't see a child like this in a charter school," Henderson said. "We're competing for limited resources. If they are getting a different mix of students, then the formula is inherently unfair."

Nationally, charter school performance is decidedly mixed, said Chester E. Finn Jr., a charter school author and a former assistant US secretary of education.

"To hang a sign of `charter' out is a guarantee of nothing in particular when it comes to educational performance," he said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at 

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