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.
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.”