Graduate Research Assistant, Urban Initiative
According to Commissioner Mitchell Chester, The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) prides itself on holding charter schools to a very high standard of excellence and selecting only the highly qualified applicants. Last year, only three out of twenty two applications to open new charters were approved, and this year, only two out of ten received a favorable recommendation. As a result of this stringency, Commissioner Chester noted in this press release that Massachusetts has some of the strongest performing charters schools in the nation.
In Fall River, several charter school proposals have been denied over the past few years. Last year, Argosy College Charter School did not receive approval from BESE, and the Innovation Academy was denied approval by the School Committee. This year, Innovation Academy reapplied under a new name, New Heights Charter School. It was still denied approval by BESE. Argosy, however, renewed its charter school application, incorporating the feedback from last year. BESE noted that the founders significantly enhanced their leadership capacity and strengthened their overall application. On February 25th, Argosy was recommended for approval. The new charter school will serve 644 students in grades 6-12, starting with 100 6th-graders next school year. As stated on their website, Argosy’s aim is to provide a high quality, small school environment with a seamless transition from middle to high school, focusing on college and career readiness.
The Commissioner also recommended adding 583 new seats to Atlantis Charter School, which currently serves 795 students in grades K-8 in Fall River. This is a unique time for Fall River, where for the first time students will have an alternative choice to Durfee High School. Atlantis will add 106 ninth-grade seats, which will be offered to the school’s current eighth-graders. The recommendation to allow Atlantis Charter School to add seats allows the school to implement its original proposal of a K-12 grade span. In the press release, BESE noted that Atlantis achieved an accountability status of Level 1 in the last two years and exceeded proficiency gap narrowing targets in the low-income and in the high needs student subgroups.
Last year, BESE approved an application from City on a Hill to open a new charter in New Bedford in 2014. City on a Hill has also held Level 1 status and exceeded proficiency gap-narrowing targets in all of its subgroups. According to an article by the Boston Globe, in the last five years, the charter school has had significantly higher ELA, math, and science MCAS results than New Bedford, Boston, and even Massachusetts overall. The original City on a Hill charter was one of the first charter schools approved in Massachusetts and currently has 900 applicants for 90 available seats. Since the very first graduating class of 1998, 100% of City on a Hill graduates have been accepted to college. Out of its graduates in 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available), 83.7% are still enrolled in college, as compared to 62.8% of New Bedford High School 2011 graduates.
As part of its strategy for achieving success, City on a Hill described in its application that it utilizes the “No Excuses” model widely described in research of effective urban schools, which aims to narrow racial and economic achievement gaps. According to research by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a defining feature of Massachusetts’ successful urban charter schools is their adherence to the “No Excuses” pedagogy, meaning, “emphasizing discipline and comportment, traditional reading and math skills, extended instruction time, and selective teacher hiring.” This model is often criticized for resulting in high retention and attrition rates. City on a Hill has certainly been at the receiving end of this criticism. In his op-ed article, Thomas Davis states that their graduation rates have dropped from 66 percent in 2013 to 53 percent in 2013. In response, James Stevens points out that their 5-year graduation rate is 80.9 percent, and that the school’s success lies in the quality of their graduates rather than the amount of time in which they graduate.
The question we have to then ask ourselves is: ultimately, what are the right indicators of student success? Is it student achievement and college-readiness, or receiving a high school diploma? In a case of a student that is behind academically, is it more important to ensure the student graduates from high school on time, or that he or she graduates college-ready? In Current Issues and Trends in Education, Aldridge and Goldman have found that social promotion is a widespread practice that is problematic for students, teachers, and parents. “Even though this practice is not in the best interest of students, schools, businesses, colleges, or the community, school officials are struggling with how best to eliminate social promotion and at the same time provide manageable, cost-effective programs that promote positive student achievement (p. 137).” In an article by the Boston Globe, the author points out that among other states, Massachusetts is behind on establishing strict policies on social promotion.
On their website, MA Department of Education states that there is a rigorous application process in place to identify charter schools that will lead students to a pathway of success after high school. However, many disagree about what success looks like for students. It is important to consider that at this time, earning a college degree is becoming more and more essential for obtaining employment. Hence, we may need to reexamine what it means for the public education system to prepare its students for success.