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Charter schools expand in Boston, state, drawing praise and concerns

Jule Pattison-Gordon

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted last week to grant four Boston charter schools’ requests to expand, adding more than 1,000 charter seats to the city. Charter advocates heralded the vote as a step in the right direction, while BPS advocates said the move has troubling implications for the finances of district schools and the board’s priorities.

The board’s vote to permit the expansions passed eight to two, with Ed Doherty and Mary Ann Stewart as the opposing votes.

Under the move, the three Brooke Charter Schools in Roslindale, Mattapan and East Boston will merge into a single regional school, according to a DESE release. The Brooke schools currently serve a combined student body of 1,530 in grades K-8. The existing three campuses will remain open and a high school will be added to serve an additional 691 children in grades 9-12. Neighborhood House Charter School, which currently enrolls 400 students in grades pre-K through 8, will gain grades 9-12 and 428 seats.

The board also approved the establishment of Libertas Academy Charter School in Springfield and New Heights Charter School in Brockton.

Support for Brooke

Jon Clark, co-director of the Brooke Charter School, said the addition of a high school was a long-time goal and allows Brooke students to continue in a school environment that is well-suited to their needs.

“For many years we’ve had the experience of seeing many of our alums go off and struggle in other settings,” Clark said. “Our mission is to prepare our kids to succeed in college, and if we can take them all the way to college’s doorstep, we’re in a better position to do that.”

According to Brooke’s application to DESE, a July 2015 survey of families of the incoming grade 8 class received replies from 93 percent. The responders unanimously stated that they wanted their child to be able to attend a Brooke High School.

The Brooke High School will open in August in a temporary space while administrators seek a permanent location, Clark said. Brooke High will begin as a grade 9 school, with new grades added each year, he said. The school’s seventh and eighth grades will expand to hold more seats, thus allowing students from outside the system to enter in these years, whereas before they could enter only grades K-6.

In his recommendation statement issued earlier this month Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell CHester said the charter expansions would reduce achievement gaps.

“I believe that the schools that I am recommending for charters have a strong likelihood of success in closing the achievement gap and in improving public education in Massachusetts,” he said.

BPS concerns

BPS advocates assert that the just-approved charter school expansions will draw millions of dollars in funding from district schools, damaging those school’s abilities to function.

In a statement on its Facebook page, parent group Quality Education for Every Student estimated BPS will lose $17 million per year due to the seat expansions, while City Councilor Tito Jackson’s office pegged the figure at nearly $19 million.

The loss of funds “will have a catastrophic effect,” said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, who estimated BPS would lose $15 million under the charter seat expansion. Unexpected budget changes are particularly disruptive as schools hire teachers and implement programs with the expectation that they will continue for years.

At the hearing, several board members said they did not consider the financial impact of charter schools on district schools when voting on expansion requests, according to board member Mary Ann Stewart and several BPS parents who attended.

Tracy Novick, field director for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, posted on her personal blog that, during the hearing, “several board members clearly stated that they did not think taking into consideration the impact charters have on districts was under their purview, and thus dismissed such testimony from their own consideration.”

Peggy Wiesenberg — parent of three BPS graduates, past member of the Citywide Parent Council and current member of QUEST and Citizens for Public Schools — testified at the hearing. She told the Banner that some board members stated that they judge charter school applicants based solely on the school’s merits — such as innovations offered —and do not assess potential effects on district schools or the need for another school in the area.

“They don’t do a determination-of-need hearing,” she said.

Board member Stewart said she personally was concerned about the funding that charters draw from district schools and opined that no new charter schools should be added until there is a clear assessment of the innovation and value they bring.

Brockton controversy

Dispute over the board’s evaluation policy came into focus over its vote to permit New Heights Charter School to establish a high school in Brockton, despite opposition from many of the city’s elected officials and school officials.

New Heights Charter School will serve approximately 735 children in grades 6-12 and is scheduled to open this fall. It will target enrollment in Brockton, Randolph, and Taunton, though it may accept students from anywhere in the state, according to DESE’s report.

Board member Mary Ann Stewart attended a public hearing on the proposed Brockton charter schools, where she said public opinion was overwhelmingly opposed. State and municipal elected officials — including state senators and the mayor — as well as the school committee, school superintendent and principals spoke out against adding a charter, she said.

Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter said that a charter school is unnecessary — the public Brockton High School is well-regarded — and that the charter will draw funding from the public high school, impeding its ability to continue that success.

“The New Heights School fails to provide any additional opportunities to Brockton students that are not already available in the Brockton Public Schools,” Carpenter said in a statement, noting that, “the nationally-recognized Brockton High School sent 92 percent of its 2015 graduates on to postsecondary education — an unparalleled record of achievement in a Gateway City.”

“The revenue lost to New Heights Charter School will have a devastating impact on the 17,000 students who will remain in the Brockton Public Schools,” Carpenter said.

After its first year, New Heights is expected to receive $10 million school district’s approximately $200 million, on an annual basis, Brockton School Committee Vice Chairman Thomas Minichiello said, according to Enterprise News.

Further requests

During the application cycle, the board received 14 expansion requests from Boston charter schools as well as eight requests from charters outside the city, according to a DESE release. Last week, the board voted to approve the expansion of Pioneer Charter School of Science in Everett — adding grades K-6 and 420 students — and to approve establishment of Libertas Academy Charter School in Springfield. Libertas plans to open in fall 2017 and will be a grade 6-12 school for 630 children.