Best Schools 2010: These Roxbury Prep Kids Can Kick Your Kids MCAS!
Charter school advocates think they know how to save our students. With charters like Roxbury Prep set to expand dramatically, we’re about to find out if they’re right.
THE SCHOOL BELL RINGS and then there is silence.
It is a Wednesday morning in June at the Roxbury Preparatory Charter School and the third day of summer school. The students — clad uniformly in blue shirts, khakis and, for the boys, ties — step out of their classroom doors, line up, and move into their next-period classes. No roughhousing, no shouting or gossiping, no slushies to the face. And these are the recalcitrant ones, the 40 or so kids who punched their ticket to summer school by failing a class during the regular year.
Talking in the hallway, it turns out, is against the rules at Roxbury Prep, be it summer, fall, winter, or spring. The point isn’t so much to churn out monks or suck the tween life force from middle schoolers; it’s to maximize every second. If the students are silent, they’re more likely to be settled when they get to class, allowing teachers to launch immediately into their lessons. “You probably net anywhere between 35 and 45 minutes of instructional time a day,” explains codirector Will Austin. The transition time between classes is five minutes. “But I’m thinking of shortening it to three,” he says, leaning forward. “I think we can do it faster.”
A few minutes later, he walks into an eighth-grade algebra class of eight students. Standing at the back, he points to two boys, Raymond and John. Seated together, they’re working out equations on small dry-erase boards that they hold up for the teacher, Jami Therrien, to check. “I can tell you right now, Raymond failed history, but he’s an excellent math student,” Austin says. “So Jami, being an awesome teacher, has him paired up with John, who didn’t pass [math].” (If a student fails just one class, he or she is required to take the entire summer school curriculum.) By partnering, Raymond and John will help each other. Therrien later points out that John’s next math teacher, while preparing for the new school year, will go back and review last year’s tests to see which areas gave him and other students a hard time, and then work them into the lesson plans.
With all that attention to detail, Roxbury Prep, despite its location in a relatively poor, violent neighborhood, has become one of the highest-performing schools in the state. It runs sixth through eighth grade, and its 265 students — admitted via lottery — are all minorities; last year more than 70 percent of them were disadvantaged enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch. As a charter school, Roxbury Prep is accountable only to the state, not to the Boston public school system, and therefore can employ nonunion teachers. This means a long school day: Classes start at 7:45 a.m. and end at 4:15 p.m., though most kids stay until 5:30 for tutoring, clubs, or (alas) detention. And for three weeks each August, teachers return to the school to prep for the upcoming year.
As Boston’s public schools find themselves struggling with abysmal marks, budget woes, and a troubling gap between white and minority students’ performance — 12 of the state’s 35 worst schools are in the city, four in Roxbury — Roxbury Prep is thriving. Last year 98 percent of the school’s eighth graders scored as advanced or proficient on the MCAS English exam, and 96 percent scored similarly on math. That’s well above the state averages of 78 and 48 percent, respectively, and obliterates the Boston districtwide averages of 59 and 28 percent. Roxbury Prep’s scores beat some tony suburban districts’, too: In Newton, for instance, the numbers for eighth graders were 9 and 19 percent lower, respectively.
Roxbury Prep’s MCAS science number isn’t quite as jaw-dropping (52 percent advanced or proficient, compared with 60 in Newton), but it still beats the state figure of 39 percent and the citywide number, 10 percent.
Think about that. Poor black and Latino kids from Roxbury are whipping the rest of Massachusetts on the MCAS. In short, Austin and company believe they’ve found a way to solve one of education’s biggest problems: closing the achievement gap.
For the 11 years of Roxbury Prep’s existence, that belief has been relevant mostly just to the kids who tromp up the back stairwell of a nursing home to reach their classes each day — the school is incongruously jammed into the Benjamin Healthcare Center’s third floor. But Roxbury Prep is about to get a lot more important. All of Boston’s charter schools, in fact, are about to get a lot more important. As part of its effort to win Obama administration Race to the Top grant funds, the state legislature in January passed a bill doubling the number of charter school seats in the state’s lowest-performing districts. For Boston, that means an estimated 5,900 more kids — kindergarten through high school — will get the chance to go to a school like Roxbury Prep, according to the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. Previously, charter funding was limited to 9 percent of district spending, but over the next seven years, that number will climb to 18 percent.
Rather than risk new ventures, the law encourages current, proven charter schools to expand. Roxbury Prep jumped most aggressively at the opportunity, announcing that it would seek charters for three new middle schools and a high school, aiming to open the first of these a year from now. Other high-performing charters, like Excel Academy and the Edward W. Brooke school, have also put in papers to replicate. The state will decide in February who gets charters.
The impact will be immediate: Most obviously, there are the 5,900 students who will drop out of the Boston system to attend the new schools. The expansion is also likely to amp up tension between charters and their critics, who argue that the schools skim off the district’s most ambitious students while sucking away funds. Perhaps most interesting, Boston’s charter boomlet could resuscitate the city’s once-thriving education-reform culture, which has been moribund for nearly 10 years. If that happens, one day we may be talking about how impressive all 55,000 of the city’s students are, not just the 265 at one school.
BUT CAN ROXBURY PREP work on a large scale? Evan Rudall, who founded the school in 1999, insists it can — and that charters’ success will help push the city’s entire public school system to improve.
Rudall grew up on Chicago’s South Side, doing everything bad he could think of. He drank, he smoked, he fought, and for his efforts, he got kicked out of middle school. But he also got a second chance: In high school he found salvation in a teacher named Ms. Stein, and righted himself in time to get into Wesleyan and later the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he trained to open a school of his own. After a brief postgraduate return to Chicago, he came back to Boston, committed to the idea of opening a middle school that would help future generations avoid his mistakes. “I packed up my car with about two weeks’ worth of clothes and ended up staying for three or four months to write the charter application,” he says. “I hopped from friend’s couch to friend’s couch, put all the expenses on my credit card. I was living in profound debt…. Everyone was telling me I was crazy.”
Crazy maybe, but the state was impressed. It approved his charter for Roxbury Prep in February 1998, and by the time the school’s opening bell finally rang in September 1999, Rudall says he knew he was onto something. The space was a little funny, with the classrooms featuring wide, hospital-style doors, but Rudall wasn’t concerned with cosmetics. “I walked through every classroom five minutes into that first day,” he says. “Students were in uniform, they were focused and engaged, hands were up answering questions, teachers were teaching and students were learning.” Fast-forward to today, and many of those kids are college graduates. And of the current college-age Roxbury Prep alums, 80 percent are enrolled. By comparison, of the 3,327 Boston Public School students who graduated in the class of 2007, 53 percent enrolled in college. (And that’s not even considering the 42 percent of BPS students who don’t graduate.)
But Roxbury Prep was not the only emerging charter school. In 1993 the state had passed a landmark education bill, which essentially established Boston as a mecca for education reform. With schools like Harvard turning out smart, talented innovators like Rudall, some of the most creative work in the country was being done here. Charter schools have a spotty record nationwide — about half are good, the other half not so much — but Boston is known for having among the best in the country.
Many credit the state’s high standards: The process for winning a charter in Massachusetts is strenuous, much longer and tougher than in most other states. The state also closely monitors all the schools and shuts down bad ones. But the charters’ success has also had a lot to do with the people behind them, says Linda Brown, who’s something of a godmother to the national charter movement and the executive director of a local nonprofit called Building Excellent Schools. To start a school from scratch “you have to be a maniac,” she says, adding that there was a uniquely talented group of them in Boston back then. “They were all hard-driving, no-nonsense young men,” she says. “At that point, none of them had families. Some people say, ‘Ah, charter schools, they just eat you up.’ These young men thrived on 24/7. This wasn’t about work-life balance. They didn’t know how to think in those terms. I think they were in awe, and I think they are still in awe, of the fact that they could start a public school that could and would do more for students. I think they were on the vanguard.”
Then, in 2002, Rudall left. Fair enough — his wife got a job at New York University, and he followed her south. But soon nearly all the other school founders started fleeing to New York, too. After a decade of exhilarating progress, the reformers had hit the state’s cap for charter school seats. For many of these educators — entrepreneurs at heart — Boston had become a dead end, though their work wasn’t finished. It wasn’t enough to open one charter school and help a handful of kids; Rudall and company wanted to open dozens of schools, to close the achievement gap everywhere.
As it happened, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein were championing the charter movement and finding creative ways to support it. In Boston, for instance, charter founders were forced to scour the city for buildings (Rudall looked at more than 50 before settling on the nursing home), but in New York, Bloomberg and Klein were offering up vacant spaces. That, and a higher cap, clearly made New York the place to be. Today Rudall leads Uncommon Schools, a growing nonprofit network of 23 charters, mostly in New York and New Jersey. His staff is stacked with former Boston charter leaders, like Brett Peiser (who founded Boston Collegiate) and Doug Lemov (who founded the Academy of the Pacific Rim). John King, who Rudall brought in as Roxbury Prep’s codirector, is now second in command of the New York State Education Department.
“I think Boston had one of the most extraordinary collections of education-reform talent in the country in the late 1990s,” Rudall says, “and I think the city could probably have four or five times the number of extremely high-performing charter schools as it does now — high-performing public schools as it does now — had those folks stayed.”
WITH THE CAP NOW LIFTED, there’s fresh energy. And Rudall, coming full circle, may have the chance to prove that his kind of school can work on an ever-expanding scale. Charter schools are often aligned in so-called networks, with franchises, essentially, in different cities. Now, for the first time, Roxbury Prep will be aligned with one of these groups. Over the summer, Rudall’s Uncommon Schools network expanded to Boston, absorbing the school.
The home office in New York will provide support with fundraising, facilities, and teacher recruitment — basically handling the complex operational aspects of running a school, and doing it with the benefits of scale. For instance, Uncommon has nine recruiters fanned out across the country looking for talented teachers, according to Rudall. As long as Roxbury Prep’s academic performance remains solid, he says, there will be no interference from New York.
Rudall hired Dana Lehman, who until this past summer was Roxbury Prep’s codirector, to oversee expansion efforts as Uncommon Schools’ managing director for Boston. “You can make kids wear ties, you can make them stand in line, you can have nice pep rallies. But if they’re not learning, it just doesn’t matter,” Lehman says, adding that Roxbury Prep’s students ultimately excel largely because of their teachers. “They work at least 60 hours a week, typically to prepare their curriculum and get everything ready every day,” she says. “And they’re not just blindly following a textbook that somebody handed down to them.”
That kind of workload has drawn plenty of critics’ ire, though. The teacher unions point out that if you want their members to work 60 hours a week, you’d better be ready to pay them for 60 hours a week (and good luck with those three weeks of prep time in August). There’s a reason, they say, so many charter school teachers burn out quickly and retreat to the security of the tenure and pensions that unions ensure.
As the charters expand they’ll have to confront those and other old criticisms, including the fact that charters attract fewer special-needs students and English language learners. Only about 2 percent of last year’s students at Roxbury Prep were classified as “limited English proficient,” compared with about 20 percent districtwide. Another complaint: More than half the students who enter a Boston charter high school leave before graduation, a 2009 study by the Massachusetts Teachers Association found. Most end up finishing in district schools. “The idea ought to be to find out what works and do it well, not just skim off kids that are easier to teach,” says Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union. He contends that Roxbury Prep isn’t necessarily better than other Boston schools, but that its students are less challenging and have more support at home. (Uninterested parents, after all, aren’t likely to put their kids in the lottery.)
Yet the Boston Foundation, long a champion of charter schools, argues the opposite: Charters simply do a better job educating children. Last year the foundation published a study by MIT and Harvard professors that compared the test scores of students who won admission to a charter school via lottery versus those who entered the lotteries and lost. The students who got into charters vastly outperformed the ones who did not, the researchers found. (To control for attrition, the researchers held the charter schools accountable for the test scores of students who’d started at charters but dropped out.) The amount by which the lottery winners outperformed the lottery losers was roughly half the size of the achievement gap between Boston’s white and black students. “Roxbury Prep was one of the charter schools that was showing a particularly large impact,” notes Thomas Kane, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of the study’s authors.
When you walk through Roxbury Prep, it’s easy to see why. You see well-behaved kids in uniform, engaged teachers, administrators who know every student by name (since they greet them at the bus when they arrive each day), and alumni who return to mentor students. Each classroom is named for a college attended by an alum, underscoring what’s possible and what’s expected. If students do leave (Austin and others believe attrition is an overblown criticism), they often do so because they got into an exam school or an elite private school.
Francisca DaSilveira is a Roxbury Prep alum who graduated last spring from the prestigious boarding school Choate Rosemary Hall, and is now starting as a freshman at NYU. Born to Cape Verdean immigrants, DaSilveira hopes to be the first of the 12 children in her family to graduate from college. She says that ever since she left Roxbury Prep, the school has kept in touch with her, checking in to make sure she was still on the path to college. She spent this past summer back at the school tutoring, and says the guidance she got from Roxbury Prep staff while filling out her college applications was crucial to her getting into NYU. The school has four staffers dedicated to keeping in touch with alumni and working to help them get to college, Austin says.
This is all good news for the 5,900 new kids who’ll get a spot in charters, but what about the other 50,000?
THE STATE FUNDS LOCAL systems on a per-pupil basis, so when students leave city public schools for the charters, they take their money with them. Each departure costs the system about $10,000, according to Boston Public Schools. Losing 5,900 students means losing $59 million.
Charter advocates believe the pressure to hold onto students — and money — will force district schools to improve and unions to reform. Michael Goar, COO of the Boston Public School system, says competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “I don’t have a view of, Damn the charter schools,” he says. “But it’s a challenge…. It forces us to rethink how we deliver our services to our kids. We need to do a better job.”
In fact, BPS and its superintendent, Carol Johnson, seem to be borrowing from charter schools’ tactics. Johnson has been negotiating with the Boston Teachers Union for extended time at more schools. And in its 12 so-called turnaround schools, which needed radical improvements, BPS has more authority over hiring and firing.
The city also plans to open three in-district charter schools, which will operate basically like normal charters but report to the city, not the state. Those schools will have to use union teachers, but will also be allowed more flexibility regarding work hours. Most unconventionally, BPS has contracted Unlocking Potential — a charter school management organization not unlike Uncommon Schools — to run one of those in-district charters, which will be a poorly performing middle school.
With these kinds of changes, and with innovators like Rudall turning back toward the city, educators have more reason to stay. Take Kimberly Steadman, for example. After growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, she came here for college at Harvard, developed a love for the city, and ended up sticking around Cambridge to pick up a law degree and a master’s in education. She now codirects the Edward W. Brooke Charter School and says that if the cap had not been lifted, she might have left town.
As contentious as the charter school issue is, everyone can agree it’s a good thing when someone who has three Harvard degrees and cares about educating kids stays here. Boston has reason to be “incredibly optimistic” about a new generation of leaders, says Lemov, one of those school founders who left for New York. “Boston is a talent-rich city. There’s someone who’s waiting for the opportunity who will rise to the occasion.”
In the meantime, even those outside the charter system are working toward a more innovative environment. Ellen Guiney, the executive director of the education-minded nonprofit Boston Plan for Excellence, recently founded a group that regularly convenes leaders from every sector of education in Boston: public, private, parochial, charter, pilot, even the Jewish day schools. The group of 11 includes Superintendent Johnson, which gives it heft. Just getting everyone in a room together was an accomplishment, considering how vitriolic the debate over charters has been. “We spent a year building trust, because there are a lot of claims and counterclaims and a lot of stuff that gets thrown around,” Guiney says. “We just said, ‘Let’s start talking, we’re not sure where this will go, but let’s see what we can learn from each other.’” One accommodation many would love to see is for BPS to let charter schools use its vacant buildings, similar to New York.
But peace is a process, and increased bonhomie, nice as it is, should not be mistaken for results. Sitting in her empty classroom, Jami Therrien, the Roxbury Prep math teacher, says that one of the key features of her school is that all the teachers understand the school’s mission and are committed to it. After all, they were handpicked by the directors and not dropped in by the unions. “I think the whole concept of ed reform is you’re going against the river,” Therrien says. “And here, it makes me feel like I’m in a boat with other people who are rowing the same direction as I am.”