Charter schools seeking to expand

Proposals could add 4,000 seats in Boston

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / June 29, 2010

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Several high-performing charter schools in Boston are pursuing proposals that could yield nearly a dozen additional schools in the city over the next few years, the most robust expansion in more than a decade.

The proposals would be among the first filed with the state this summer under a new Massachusetts law that allows the doubling of seats in districts with low MCAS scores as a way to satisfy pent-up parental demand for stronger educational alternatives. Some schools could open as soon as September 2011.

The sheer number of seats — over 4,000 — being sought for the first round of approvals represents a big chunk of the roughly 5,500 additional seats the new law allows in Boston, according to data charter schools provided to the Globe.

In an unprecedented move, two high-performing charter schools, Roxbury Preparatory and Edward W. Brooke, are planning to open their own network of schools, an arrangement that would redefine the state’s charter school movement, known largely for small, independently run schools.

Roxbury Prep, whose 250 middle school students are taught on the third floor of a nursing home, is preparing for three additional middle schools and a high school. Edward Brooke, in Roslindale, is pursuing three additional schools serving kindergarten through grade 8 and a high school.

Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, said yesterday he was delighted about the number of proposals expected to be filed.

“This is all about giving more opportunities to young people and families,’’ said Reville, who has not seen any of the proposals, but he added, “I know the decisions will not be without controversy.’’

The requests will make for an intensely competitive state approval process and renew questions about whether the state raised the limit on charter school growth enough.

The state’s push to open more charter schools has caused mixed emotions. Governor Deval Patrick and other supporters have praised the academic performance of many charter schools, particularly in closing gaps in achievement among students of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

But critics, including many teacher unions, school superintendents, school committees, and local political leaders, question the success of charter schools, arguing that they lure away academically gifted students from traditional schools. Charter schools say students are admitted by lottery, and many are behind academically when they arrive.

Critics also worry about the financial impact of charter schools on local school budgets, because students who attend charter schools take with them a certain amount in state aid from their hometown school districts.

Boston expects to lose more than $50 million in state aid to charter schools this coming school year. The financial hit is projected to double in the coming years, as the state approves more charter schools.

Boston schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson, in an effort to keep more students in the district, is trying to boost the quality of schools and also is putting together plans for the district to open three of its own charter schools for fall 2011. Those proposals will require approval from both the School Committee and the state.

“We welcome the competition,’’ said Matthew Wilder, a school district spokesman. “It makes us stronger as a school district.’’

Created under the 1993 Education Reform Act, the approximately 60 charter schools statewide are supposed to provide innovative educational alternatives to traditional public schools because they operate with fewer restrictions from the state and almost always have no teacher unions. Many charter schools have among the best MCAS scores in the state, but others perform below school district averages and the state has closed a few.

If approved by the state, the new schools would not all open in the same year. Roxbury Prep and Edward Brooke both plan to open just one school each for the 2011-12 school year and then other schools later.

The networks could pose challenges for the operators, charter school supporters say, from their ability to execute high academic achievement across a much larger student population to finding facilities suitable for a school in a city where options are scarce.

Roxbury Prep is teaming up with Uncommon Schools, a charter school management company based in New York City, to help it run its network. Ideally, Roxbury Prep would like to open its additional schools in Roxbury, pending building availability, said Will Austin, the school’s codirector.

The Edward Brooke is interested in opening additional schools in the city wherever the demand exists.

“There are not enough good schools in the city of Boston, and that’s not right,’’ said Jon Clark, the school’s codirector.

Meanwhile, MATCH Charter Public School is looking to create a school devoted to teaching students who are learning to speak English, a student population woefully underserved by nearly all charter schools statewide. Excel Academy in East Boston, popular among immigrant and first-generation American students, is pursuing plans for at least one more school.

Initial proposals are due to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in early August. The commissioner will recommend proposals for approval to the agency’s board in February.

In order to gain approval under the new law, applicants must prove, among other things, a strong track record on the MCAS and success in closing achievement gaps.

Kevin Andrews, president of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said the possibility of all the extra seats being snatched up before all charter school operators submit plans will probably cause another legislative push for additional seats.

“It’s not going to be easy to up the cap,’’ said Andrews, who also heads up the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester. But if the expanding schools prove successful, he added, “The Legislature is going to be hard pressed not to respond to parental requests for more seats.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at

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