Best Schools 2010: These Roxbury Prep Kids Can Kick Your Kid’s 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.

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.”                         

  • Will

    Roxbury Prep thanks Boston Magazine and Jason Schwartz for this profile. The phenomenal work of Roxbury Prep teachers, students, and families has proven that the achievement gap can be closed not jus

  • none

    Mission Hill, the location of Roxbury Prep is not “poor and violent” as this story says. What did Schwartz observe or what information did he use for making this unwarranted claim? If none, this article amounts to slander, and Roxbury Prep can validate my point.

  • TONIANN

    YES, GOOD FOR THE CHARTER SCHOOL. MY PROBLEM WITH THIS ARTICLE IS THE DEFAMATORY DESCRIPTION OF MY NEIGHBORHOOD. HOW DARE YOU DESCRIBE MISSION HILL AS BEING IN A ‘RELATIVELY POOR, VIOLENT NEIGHBORHOOD”. WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR INFORMATION FROM ABOUT OUR NEIGHBORHOOD, BECAUSE IT IS INCORRECT. MAYBE YOU SHOULD CONSULT WITH THE BOSTON POLICE DEPARTMENT ON THIER CRIME STATS FOR MISSION HILL, OR RENTAL PROPERTY CHARGES BEFORE MAKING THESE REMARKS.
    MR.SCHWARTZ, YOU SHOULD HAVE DONE YOUR HOMEWORK!

  • Chris

    Good article on Roxbury Prep, but please, Mission Hill is not a poor or violent neighborhood. Maybe at one time, but certainly not now. I’ve lived here since 1973. I tell people, when I used to say I lived on Mission Hill, people would say, “Aren’t you afraid to live there?” Now, everybody want to live here!