Hub may run three charter schools

New plan for overhaul starting to take shape

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / January 28, 2010

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School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson proposed last night to create three city-run charter schools from scratch, in her first public push to overhaul the system since the state passed a law giving school districts greater freedom to pursue educational innovations.

Johnson unveiled the new strategy to the Boston School Committee as part of an update on her plan to turn around 14 schools with low test scores. She expects the state to identify them as underperforming under provisions of the new law, which are based on MCAS data, in the next few months.

State earmarks $215 million for school projects in 12 communities. B6

While she did not rule out converting any of those schools into charter schools, she said taking that step may be unnecessary, at least initially.

That is because the new law gives superintendents extraordinary powers to transform underperforming schools using approaches commonly found at charter schools, such as extended school days and forcing teachers to reapply for their jobs, without turning the schools into charter schools.

“We will maximize the flexibilities of the education reform law so students receive a world-class education,’’ Johnson said before hundreds of parents, students, district employees, and community activists who packed the auditorium at English High School in Jamaica Plain.

Johnson did not say where the new charter schools, also known as Horace Mann Schools, would be located in the city. The earliest the schools could open is fall 2011.

Starting an in-district charter school requires approval from both the School Committee and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which only votes on such requests once a year, in February, after a rigid state review.

In one key change in the new law, 14 in-district charter schools, including at least four in Boston, can open without union approval, a measure that Mayor Thomas M. Menino lobbied the Legislature aggressively to support.

Last night, many attendees expected Johnson to reveal her specific turnaround plans for each of the 14 schools she identified two months ago. Instead, the superintendent spoke about the plans in general, without naming the schools where certain changes would take place.

She said that teachers at six schools would have to reapply for their jobs, that new principals would be appointed to some schools, and that two schools would merge with two other, high-performing schools.

In the next few weeks, said Johnson, she or her staff will hold meetings at those schools to reveal the individual plans before making an announcement at a School Committee meeting about specific changes.

The Rev. Gregory Groover, the School Committee’s chairman, said in an interview after the meeting that he supported the delay.

“As a parent, I wouldn’t want to hear about it at a School Committee meeting,’’ Groover said.

Johnson also said she needs to proceed carefully in making changes under the new law, which was passed Jan. 14.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is still drafting regulations to execute new provisions of the law, including those perta ining to the new powers superintendents will receive to transform underperforming schools.

Johnson has set up a meeting next week with the state’s education commissioner to go over her ideas to turn around the schools she has identified, as well as to gauge if there is any likelihood that the state may identify other schools in the district.

The new law enables the commissioner to identify 72 schools as underperforming from a much larger pool of eligible ones that have chronically low test scores. The designations could come in April.

During the public comment period after the presentation, some attendees applauded Johnson for moving as quickly as she can at this point to turn around the lagging schools.

Several parents and staff members from the Elihu Greenwood School in Hyde Park - one of the 14 identified schools, which almost closed last year - shared stories about transformations already under way at their school, giving some credit to a new principal who started last summer.

Peter Li, a member of the Boston Student Advisory Council and Youth on Board, stressed the need for the superintendent to reach out to students as she develops her turnaround plan, particularly in ensuring that teachers engage students in their studies.

“Students have a unique point of view on classroom learning,’’ said Li, a student at Boston Arts Academy, which is not an underperforming school.

Kim Janey of Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a nonprofit that works on behalf of disadvantaged students, said she was frustrated that superintendents cannot use the powers immediately under the new law.

“We just can’t wait,’’ Janey said.