Who doesn’t love a charter school?
From Newark to New Orleans, and Washington D.C. to Atlanta, charter schools are seen as the magic bullet not just for curing much of what ails public education, but for transforming poor communities themselves.
That’s what makes Brockton, Massachusetts, a down-at-the-heels city in Massachusetts so unusual. Brocktonians are up in arms over this week’s decision by the Massachusetts board of education to allow a charter school to open in Brockton. Opponents of the New Heights Charter School include the local newspaper, The Enterprise, which says it is generally “supportive” of charter schools. It includes, the mayor of Brockton, city council members, state representatives, members of the local school committee and, yes, parents—lots of them.
The New Heights Charter School will not serve Brockton’s diverse educational needs, charges Tom Minichiello, vice chair of the Brockton School Committee: “Let’s look at what students the charter school wants: not our 30-plus percent English language learner population or our approximately 14 percent special education population. No, charter advocates want students from our grades 6-12 student population that testing shows are making progress. The data shows that the longer students remain within the Brockton school system, the more successful the test results.”
Indeed, Brockton is the locus of the single most successful school turnaround in Massachusetts history, which I’ve written about here and here and here. Brockton High, the largest high school in Massachusetts with over 4,200 students, is proof that, against great odds, even big once-failing public schools can be revived with good leadership, the right strategy and teamwork; proof that public school can play a vital role in poor high-needs communities. In the case of Brockton, the leadership came, initially, from Sue Szachowicz, a long-time Brockton history teacher who became principal and led the school’s revival. The strategy and teamwork came with help from Szachowicz’s teacher colleagues—the very same blackboard warriors who worked at the school when it was failing and who embraced what became a winning years-long literacy initiative.
The story of Brockton, once the country’s shoe-making capital, is a familiar saga of industrial decline. Globalization and recession battered the local economy; that and a statewide property tax cap stripped the school system of millions of dollars in funding. By the early 1990s, Brockton had become the poster child for educational dysfunction in Massachusetts. Hundreds of teachers were laid off, class sizes ballooned, teachers were forced to teach outside their subject-areas of expertise, and student performance declined.
At the same time, local middle-class Italian and Irish families moved to more affluent towns. They were replaced by new, poor immigrants, many of them from Haiti and Cape Verde; their children had English language deficiencies that were compounded by interrupted schooling and often trauma—all conditions that required extra services. Today three-quarters of Brockton students are black and Latino and two-thirds are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—about double the statewide ratio.
But the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993—a grand bargain that traded increased school funding for greater accountability—and the teacher-led restructuring sparked Brockton High’s revival. Today close to 90 percent of Brockton students go to college; a third of its graduates won the state’s Adams tuition scholarships during the last two years. In 2015, 85 percent of Brockton students scored advanced or proficient on MCAS, the state’s standardized tests; and 64 percent scored advanced or proficient in math. Nancy Bloom, writing in the Massachusetts education blog Edushyster, notes: “Brockton has made Annual Yearly Progress in all student categories on the MCAS without sacrificing specials such as music, sports and art. That’s virtually unheard of for an urban high school, especially one in a community as diverse as Brockton.”
This is how Daniela Belice, a recent Brockton graduate who left Haiti right after the 2010 earthquake, describes her experience at Brockton High:
“The bilingual program was very good,” says Belice who started Brockton in a beginner’s English Language Learner class, in the 9th grade, in a sequence that usually lasts three years. But with the help of her teachers, many of whom spent “one-on-one time” her, Belice completed the sequence within a year-and-a-half. Even as she was getting up to speed in English, Belice was taking “Haitian” math and science courses, which were taught by Brockton teachers who spoke Haitian Creole.
Brockton has teachers who speak Haitian Creole, Cape Verdian Creole and Spanish and are certified to teach math and science.
Belice enrolled at Quincy College after graduating from Brockton and plans to become an immigration attorney.
Now, the new charter threatens Brockton High’s steady trajectory. After the charter school’s first year of operation, the Brockton school district expects to lose $10 million in funding, about 6 percent of its annual school budget; by contrast, in 1991, at the peak of the local school crisis, Brockton lost $5 million in funding. Tight budgets already have led to a net loss of funding at Brockton during the last two years. In the 2014-15 school year, Brockton High had to cut four consumer-science teachers, who taught electives in nutrition, cooking and personal finance. The school also has lost teachers via attrition.
The result, says Sharon Wolder, the new principal and long-time Brockton educator, may be larger class sizes, which for many subjects already average around 35 students per class.
Even though New Heights Charter School will be relatively small compared to the overall number of students in the district, funding for the charter school could have a large ripple effect. That’s because when New Heights draws, say, 100 sixth graders from Brockton, the losses won’t all come from a single school. Instead, the losses will be spread over more than half-a-dozen middle- and K-8 schools, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to consolidate classes. Instead, the district has to start cutting programs.
New Heights’s victory comes after its earlier plan was rejected, at least in part, because of the school’s failure to address Brockton’s sizeable English Language Learner population. Last year, a scathing 14-page analysis of the first New Heights application, which was signed by several local officials, including School Superintendent Kathleen Smith and Mayor Bill Carpenter, urged the state to reject the application noting that the proposal “lacks services and supports for English language learners and students with disabilities.”
New Heights’s latest application seems to address some of those flaws. For its first year, when the school anticipates student population of 315 kids, it plans to hire three “English Language Learner teachers”, and one lead ELL teacher who will also double as a “world language teacher,” as well as three special education teachers. But it’s doubtful that New Heights will have dual-certified Creole or Spanish speakers who can also teach science and math to immigrant kids like Belice. It’s noteworthy that for such a small school, the first year’s budget includes three deans as well as a head of school. At many charters a key mission of deans is to enforce no-excuses discipline.
Unlike the first application, which focused exclusively on Brockton, the new application tries to sell itself as a “regional charter” that will be open to students in two other towns, Taunton and Randolph, as well as Brockton. Taunton is 17 miles from Brockton, while Randoph is 6 miles away. Unlike Brockton, both towns are on the list of schools in the state’s lowest 10-percent in achievement, which is perhaps intended to answer critics who argue that Brockton doesn’t need charter schools.
But the regional designation is nothing more than a fig leaf for a school that squarely targets Brockton students. New Heights never expects to take more than about 10 percent of kids from Taunton or Randolph, according to its own prospectus.
New Heights boasts that it will offer students the opportunity to take college courses.“Our Mission is to prepare students for college. Period,” trumpets the New Heights website. No vocational training for the denizens of this industrial town!
In fact, Brockton High also offers college courses, as well as an International Baccalaureate, and an array of vocational options.
A key reason for local opposition to the charter is that New Heights doesn’t offer anything new. While Brockton High still maintains a rich array of electives, arts and sports, the New Heights budget includes not a single teacher for arts or music during its first five years of operation, and just one physical education teacher in a school that expects to grow to 420 students in its second year.
“There is size; the one thing Brockton High can never be is small,” says Wolder.
But there are those, in Brockton, who speculate that the one thing New Heights offers is a haven for families who’d rather have their kids in a school without the poorest and neediest immigrant kids.
Whatever the offerings, New Heights will be exempt from many of the rules that constrain public schools. “If a kid shows up in March and is 19 years old, we say welcome and we own that kid,” including their challenges and special needs, says Szachowicz, the former principal. “That’s what public education is. If this charter really served kids who were English Language Learners, overage, under-credited, I’d have a hard time fighting against it.”
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that politics, not education, is behind the approval of the new charter school. Politicians and “edu-crats” are its most enthusiastic backers. There’s Michael Sullivan, a Republican and former U.S. attorney who is chair of the New Heights board. Fellow Republican, Charlie Baker, the new Republican governor of Massachusetts, has been pushing to open more charters. The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a backer of the original state ed-reform legislation, is now advocating for major expansion of the charter sector. But as The Enterprise concluded in its editorial opposing the new charter school, for Brockton, a model of the Massachusetts’s proven education reforms, little good is likely to come from the exercise:
New Heights is an example of what public school supporters predicted as the worst-case scenario. Its aim is to skim the best students off the top of local schools, leaving those schools with less money and students who need more tending. New Heights has a website, but it is in many ways a stealth proposal. The people behind it have been very low profile. Community forums to present the idea to people? If they happened, we’re sorry, but we missed them. So take the best and brightest out of traditional public school systems and make sure those kids get into college. That’s not what American education is about.