Charter Approval and Student Success

Katya Starostina

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. 

Newly Released Graduation Rates

By Katya Starostina

Graduate Research Assistant, Urban Initiative

On January 27th, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released graduation and dropout rates for all school districts for the 2012-2013 school year. The state’s four-year graduation rate increased for the seventh consecutive year, with 85 percent of the entire cohort of students who entered 9th grade in 2009 graduating on time four years later (accounting for students who transfer out of or into the district during that time).

For New Bedford and Fall River, graduation rates have been well below the state average and declined the previous school year. This time around, however, the four-year graduation rate in Fall River increased by 5.8 percent and in New Bedford, by 7.2 percent.* This marks a significantly higher percent change than other comparable Gateway Cities such as Lawrence, Lowell, and Brockton. These cities experienced a 1.2, 2.7, and -0.9 percent changes, respectively. According to a post by MassINC, school districts in the state’s Gateway Cities posted an average graduation rate of 75.3 percent, 9.7 percent below the state average.

Improving graduation rates for subgroups has been a priority for the state and specifically Gateway Cities. Over the years, English Language Learners (ELLs), students of color, and low-income students have been graduating at a much lower rate than the rest of the students. In New Bedford, ELLs, whose graduation rate has been on the decline in the last four years, was the most improved of all groups – a 24 percent increase in one year. The graduation rate for Hispanic students increased by 13 percent and the rate for low-income students grew by 5.7 percent.


In Fall River, the group that has seen the biggest decline in the past 4 years has realized the biggest increase this year. The percent change for ELLs is even more significant that in New Bedford – a whopping 54 percent. Graduation rates for Hispanic students increased by 9.2 percent and for low-income students, by 7.6 percent.


The state has recognized the persistent achievement gaps in the Gateway Cities that disproportionately affect low-income students, ELLs, students of color, and students with disabilities. The FY13 state budget included $3.5 million in new funding to support the implementation of the Gateway Cities Education Agenda, proposed by Governor Deval Patrick. The agenda focused especially on supporting ELLs and increasing career readiness for high school students. 

According to this press release, New Bedford benefited by receiving $40,000 to launch the New Bedford Academy of Engineering within New Bedford High School that will focus on advanced manufacturing, clean energy, health care, and the STEM fields. Fall River received $45,000 to better prepare students for the growing job opportunities in the STEM fields through the creation of the Science, Engineering, and Math Career Academy. Fall River also received $235,000 to create a five-week intensive summer program centered on English language instruction, literacy workshops, and college awareness to help bridge the transition that ELLs face from middle school to high school.  

Governor Patrick proposed an additional investment in education as well to expand access to high quality educational opportunities, totaling approximately $550 million in its first year and increasing to nearly $1 billion annually over the next four years. The proposal includes an additional $20 million to implement all components of the Gateway Cities Education Agenda and increase comprehensive supports to students and their families in Gateway Cities.

In partnership with Gateway City mayors, city managers, and school officials, MassINC recently released The Gateway Cities Vision for Dynamic Community-Wide Learning Systems. A culmination of a year-long series of planning sessions, this vision highlights effective new models to equip students with the necessary skills required by the changing economy. The Vision will guide a multi-year effort to use data and public education to help Massachusetts make the right investments in Gateway City learning systems.

It is exciting to see all the newly developed strategies and funding that New Bedford and Fall River can take advantage of to improve the public school system. The momentum to boost education in Gateway Cities is building, and more and more key stakeholders are taking part. Join the Urban Initiative for the Opportunity in the Gateway Cities Summit hosted by Teach for America in Lawrence on April 12 to contribute to the conversation. 

* Percent change was calculated by dividing the percentage difference between the two numbers by the first number and multiplying by 100.

Charter Schools Debate in New Bedford and Fall River

Katya Starostina, Graduate Research Assistant, Urban Initiative

On Decemeber 18th, the class of LeadershipSouthCoast met with Meg Mayo Brown, Superintendent of Fall River School District, as well as several staff of Doran Elementary School, and Dr. Steve Furtado, the Executive Director, and a few other staff of the Global Leadership Public Charter School in New Bedford. Some of the content below was discussed on that day.

The debate about the success of charter schools and their impact on traditional public schools has persisted for quite some time. Charter schools originated as innovative centers of learning that explored best practices in order to help the neediest students and serve as models for other public schools. Now, some argue that this is no longer the case. Because of the lottery opt-in enrollment, which requires parents to fill out an application, and stricter policies on academic achievement, the anti-charter movement blames charter schools for selective bias and eliminating the most challenged population as a means to achieving success.

However, charter schools are known for raising the standard and achieving significantly better results than traditional public schools, which may mean refusing to practice social promotion and holding students responsible for their academic performance. According to a 2013 study on charter school performance in Massachusetts by the Center of Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), on average students in charter schools make larger learning gains in both reading and mathematics than those in traditional schools. In addition, students in Boston charter schools have significantly larger learning gains in both reading and mathematics, having the largest average growth rate in math and reading CREDO has seen in any city or state thus far.

Most of all, this debate has produced a sizable conflict between tradition and charter school districts. On one side, traditional schools claim that charter schools take away funds from the already tight budgets – money that is needed to administer a district even when those students are not there. However, traditional schools get refunded the full amount for first year and 25 percent for the next five years. Charter schools also receive a smaller tuition amount per pupil and are not allowed to dip into state grants for their facilities. The school choice movement argues that introducing charter schools creates competition that would cause low-performing districts to improve their performance.

Nonetheless, an article by EducationNext has found that while in the past, most traditional school districts have responded with indifference or even hostility, now there is a broadening of responses and even partnerships forming with school choice providers. In Fall River, for example, Principal Maria Pontes flew to NYC to learn best practices from a Harlem Children’s Zone charter schools, which she implemented at the Doran Elementary School. Subsequently, under Maria’s leadership, the school progressed from Level 4 to Level 2.

On the national level, the Obama administration has put pressure to relax limits on charter school expansion. In 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated that “States that do not have public charter laws or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools will jeopardize their applications under the Race to the Top Fund.” Soon after, Governor Patrick introduced the Readiness legislation (H. 4163), which rose the state’s charter cap from 9 percent to 18 percent in the lowest 10 percent of districts, as measured by combined Composite Performance Index scores on the English and math MCAS exams. Charter cap refers to the maximum percentage that the charter tuition can comprise of the net school spending (NSS) of a school district, thereby limiting the number of students that charter schools can enroll. According to an article by MassInc, the new legislation expands the charter cap in 23 districts, including most of the Gateway Cities, which serve 25 percent of all Massachusetts public school students and the neediest student populations of the state.

Below is a comparison of seven major Gateway Cities in FY10, when the charter cap was nine percent, with FY14, after charter cap was raised. The bar graph shows the growth of charter tuition as a percentage of net school spending in these cities. It can be seen that Fall River and New Bedford have been lagging behind the rest of the cities in establishing charter schools.

charter schools blog

(Click the graph to enlarge)

City Administration of New Bedford has been critical of charter schools, as the previous and current Mayor have advised against approval of charter school proposals submitted to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Global Learning Charter Pubic School of New Bedford has had a significant decrease in enrollment in high school grades. Executive Director Steve Furtado explains that their students are not allowed to participate in New Bedford High athletic program and some choose to attend there instead. A social worker from Global Learning stated that while their students should have access to play sports at New Bedford High, the high school has not agreed to allow that to happen. Still, the school is currently at capacity of 500 students and has had to turn away already-enrolled students from continuing on to the high school. Hence, it is seeking to lift their enrollment cap to be able to expand. With a new charter school City on a Hill opening in FY15, New Bedford will increase its charter tuition but will still be under nine percent of NSS, far from the new 18 percent cap.

In Fall River, Superintendent Meg Mayo Brown supports charter schools but says she is a minority among her colleagues. She stated that teachers from Durfee High have pressured school committee to shut down proposals for a second high school. As such, numerous proposals have been rejected. One of the examples is Argosy Collegiate Charter School, which submitted another proposal for FY15. Argosy, along with New Heights Charter School, which also submitted a proposal to open in FY15, is waiting for the decision on the proposal to come in February. Atlantis Charter School, the only charter school in Fall River, is seeking an expansion of their enrollment from 795 to 1,400.

Nationally and across the state, there has been a movement to plant more charter schools in the lowest performing cities as a way to offer additional school choice to low-income and minority students and present alternative education models in troubled school districts. However, it seems that in New Bedford and Fall River, two chronically underperforming districts, opposition to charter schools is quite high. Both cities have limited options for parent who are seeking an alternative to traditional public schools for their children. A parent of a student enrolled in the Atlantis Charter School commented that the acceptance rate of the school in 2007 was lower than that of Harvard University that year. This example demonstrates how limiting those options truly are for parents and children in Fall River, and likely in New Bedford.

Portfolio Items