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City schools eye unified enrollment

Charters, district schools consider one lottery and renewed collaboration

Jule Pattison-Gordon
City schools eye unified enrollment
Kipp Academy Boston charter school Principal Nikki Delk Barnes speaks during a rally at the State House to launch the Great Schools Massachusetts campaign, an effort aimed at lifting the cap on new charter school seats in Massachusetts. (Photo: Eric Haynes, Archipelago Strategies)

When educational leaders from charter, district and parochial schools convened for a meeting at Roxbury Community College last week, a new school enrollment plan dominated the conversation.

The proposal, which would blend charter schools into district schools’ existing enrollment system and create a single lottery process, has drawn mixed responses from education advocates as charter school proponents are seeking a greater share of students — and the city’s education funding.

Rahn Dorsey, the mayor’s chief of education, and other representatives of the Boston Compact presented 125 city principals from all three educational sectors with goals and proposals for meeting them.

Speakers emphasized that sectors were not in competition with each other but instead all sought the same goal: improving educational outcomes for their students.

“There are 75,000 students in the city. It is time to regard them all together as opposed to neighborhood-by-neighborhood or school-by-school,” said Rachel Weinstein, chief collaboration officer of the Boston Compact, the partnership between district, charter and Catholic schools.

What Compact renewal means

For the first time since the Compact’s founding in 2011, the steering committee asked participants to confirm if they wished to continue the partnership.

The cross-sector and cross-school collaboration looks to have sectors coordinate activity and share ideas as they explore how best to serve students.

In the past, members have shared and worked together on lesson plans and techniques. Erica Brown, executive director of City on a Hill charter school and member of the Boston Compact steering committee, said that from speaking with people from other schools she learned about new approaches to school fundraising and one school’s system for ensuring students met benchmarks.

“That [system] takes a lot of time to develop and for them to just hand it over? That’s what I’d consider true collaboration,” Brown said.

Members who renew the Compact must commit to four core goals. First, they agree to establish collective responsibility for closing opportunity and achievement gaps. Second, they promise to increase the number of high-quality schools in Boston. Third, they commit to developing family-friendly, equitable systems to help families access high-quality schools close to home. Lastly, in deciding matters such as where and what kind of new schools the members open, they pledge to communicate with the other sectors to take on a citywide, coordinated approach.

“We should make sure all our kids, regardless of where they go, have the opportunity to be successful,” said Mayor Walsh, speaking in support of collaboration to boost all schools. “I want to make sure when somebody drives by a school building in our city — whether it’s parochial, charter or district — the conversation should go like this: parents should say, ‘That’s a great school.’ … It shouldn’t be limited to certain areas, it should be every school in our city.”

Renewing the Compact commits members to the core large-scale goals but does not require they adopt specific proposals for fulfilling them, such as increased data sharing and the unified enrollment system.

Although their original agreement does not require renewal, the Boston Compact’s steering committee seeks it due to widespread leadership changes across the sectors, which replaced many of the original signers. Recent years have seen new superintendents for both Boston Public Schools and Catholic Schools, as well as the election of a new mayor; meanwhile, the Boston Charter Alliance currently seeks a director of strategic projects. Additionally, Weinstein said that with a few years under their belt, the Compact team now had a “strong foundation to do bolder work” making it an appropriate time to address plans for the future.

Unified enrollment

If adopted, the single, unified enrollment system would streamline the lottery process so that parents interested in both district and charter schools have one application, instead of one BPS application and a different application for each charter.

To accomplish this, charter schools would be added into the database from which the BPS creates customized lists of recommended schools for each child.

Walsh said the proposed single enrollment process would “build on the [existing enrollment] system to create more options for families.”

Under the current system, parents get lists generation by an algorithm incorporating such things as school test scores and proximity to the student’s home. This means that if added, charter schools would switch from operating on a citywide basis — in which anyone, no matter where they live, can apply to any charter — to serving the neighborhoods in which they are located.

The shift would require a change to state law. Currently, students are admitted to charters based on a lottery, regardless of neighborhood or municipal lines.

That could trigger demographic changes in charter school makeup, as parents who otherwise might bypass charter schools’ enrollments would now be presented with charters as options.

Odette Williamson, a member of Quality Education for Every Student, a grassroots BPS parent organization, has one child who attended a charter school for the past four years and another child who attended a district school. There are significant differences between the two educational environments, including pedagogy, discipline and opportunities for parental involvement. Putting both types of schools on the same enrollment list will mask that, Williamson said.

“[The single enrollment system] is not really educating parents or telling them the different in choices and how that can impact their child’s success and ability to graduate,” said Williamson.

If funds go but costs stay

Some opponents fear that the single enrollment system will lead to funding diversions from district schools to charters and transfer costs for students needing more resources back onto the public schools.

When a child attends a charter school, district funding follows. The state then is required to reimburse the district for these funds for one year, and pay 25 percent of that amount for the next three years. But the state consistently has failed to fully reimburse municipalities for the funds.

According to a press release by QUEST, charters receive 49 percent of the state’s Chapter 70 education funding while serving 12 percent of Boston students.

“Students who don’t adhere to the discipline or code of conduct programs at charter schools often end up back in Boston Public Schools,” said Kim Janey, senior project director of Boston School Reform.

Education advocates say charters use suspensions to push out students who are more difficult to educate, including special-education students. In 2014, the state’s average suspension rate was 6.2 percent, while on average, Boston charters suspended 17.3 percent of their students.

Every student? Higher needs

Among district school supporters, there is a prevailing perception that charters do not adequately serve higher-need students.

“[Single enrollment] has the potential of providing fewer options and less equitable options for higher-need students and special-need students, because we know charters do not serve special-need students, English-language-learner students,” said Mary Battenfield a member of QUEST.

Shannah Varón, chair of Boston Charter Alliance and executive director of Boston Collegiate Charter School, said this perception was inaccurate, but that a “fair amount” of people share that belief.

Compact signatories would agree that all three sectors must provide programs to meet the needs of all students, although each individual school would not be required to do so, said Weinstein.

“While a given school might not be able to serve every type of low-incident, high-need student, across each sector we need to be able to do that,” said Weinstein. She said a small, 300-person school could not be expected to have the resources to serve all needs ranging from blindness to ELL.

A particular focus would be put on programs for traditionally underserved groups: special needs, ELL and black and Latino boys.

Data sharing

Currently, there is no shared methodology among the three school sectors for gauging student performance, parental participation and teacher evaluation, said Dorsey. More comparable data would let the schools determine where they want to collaborate.

Varón said that determining what “quality” means across all schools could pose a challenge.

The Compact proposes to work with the Boston Opportunity Agenda to add metrics into the January 2017 report card that would reflect each sector’s performance on closing the achievement gaps for underserved student groups, said Weinstein.

Timeline

Within the next few weeks the Compact will be presented for discussion and a vote on renewal.

Meanwhile, discussion will continue on the proposed unified enrollment system. From October until the end of the year, six citywide meetings on the plan will be held to solicit responses and ideas from parents, families and advocates. The mayor then will present a detailed plan before the BPS School Committee. If the School Committee ratifies it, the proposal will be presented to individual charter schools to opt in or not. If accepted, the unified system would go into effect by January 2017.

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