Charter Schools in the Public School System
In Massachusetts, there are more than 45,000 students on waiting lists for the state’s 68 charter schools (source). Clearly, there’s interest and demand.
In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino and Superintendent Carol Johnson have embraced Horace Mann Charter Schools as a promising method of school reform. While traditional charter schools compete with public school districts for students and funds, Horace Mann Charters are part of the district. Teachers remain part of their union and receive the same salaries and benefits and students can access district programs and services, particularly in Special Education. However, hiring, evaluation, curriculum, and scheduling rules are relaxed so the school can make necessary changes and pursue innovative ideas.
One of the city’s newest and most innovative charters is Boston Green Academy, a Horace Mann Charter School in the Boston Public Schools. We talked with Matt Holzer, Assistant Headmaster and Founding Group Member of Boston Green Academy (BGA) about what makes BGA unique.
Tell us about Boston Green Academy.
Founded in September 2011, Boston Green Academy is a Horace Mann Charter School within the Boston Public Schools with a unique mission and role. BGA exists to provide the students of Boston, especially those who struggle, with an excellent education that focuses on sustainability and global citizenship and prepares our graduates for college and a 21st century economy.
Modeled after the successful Fenway High School, we seek to disrupt the dropout pipeline that has claimed so many of our young people in Boston. We want the benefits of the emerging green economy to reach our students and their communities. As an ‘in-district’ charter school we exist to strengthen the Boston Public Schools and we serve as a vanguard for innovative programs and practices that can be replicated across the BPS and beyond.
Superintendent Johnson asked the BGA Board of Trustees to ‘restart’ a struggling high school in the BPS and they accepted the challenge. BGA opened with 340 students in grades 9-12, 60% of whom came from the closed school and the rest from 16 other high schools. Eventually we will expand to include grades 6-12 as our charter requires.
BGA’s student body reflects the diversity of the City of Boston: our students are 83% low-income, 28% are students with disabilities, and 13% are English Language Learners.
At BGA, we believe we have the best of both worlds. We’re both a part of the Boston Public Schools and we are own district with respect to the state. The BPS provides us with a building and central services, such as insurance, transportation, and food services, while we enjoy autonomy over curriculum, budget, and staffing and are allowed to choose our staff without regard to seniority.
Our teachers and staff are members of BPS unions for the purposes of salary and benefits, but not work rules. This allows us to have a longer school day and more flexible programs.
We admit students from across the city through a lottery and share data with the BPS. Our founding group felt it was important to be a part of efforts to strengthen the district from within and we are glad to provide another quality option for families within the BPS.
What are the key elements of BGA’s student-centered learning approach?
We’re committed to finding ways for all our students to succeed. This means getting to know each of them well and establishing strong supports for them.
After our opening year where we had to get to know our entire student body at once, we’re now moving towards more innovative and individualized ways of meeting their diverse needs.
For example, our Advisory program offers all students a strong support network with adults who know them well. Our Support & Enrichment program allows students to have targeted supports and electives three days per week. And all students benefit from great instruction from a skilled and committed teaching staff.
Many of the students you serve are classified as “at risk.” What challenges does that present?
It’s true. The needs of our students are substantial—85% of them are categorized as ‘high risk’ by the Boston Public Schools (BPS). To realize our mission, we have to both strengthen our ability to differentiate instruction in all classes and also provide multiple pathways for students to demonstrate mastery of skills and content beyond traditional classes and credits.
Our Special Education and ESL programs have been very successful in many measurable ways because of our student-centered pedagogy. Excellent instruction for these students should be what all students receive and we now need our entire school to be able to teach in these ways. We also need to move more towards competency-based assessments that let struggling students advance more quickly than year-long classes currently allow.
This is our work for the future and were very interested in collaborating with other schools that are developing and implementing creative and collaborative solutions to these complex challenges.
On the one hand you have to meet state and district requirements. On the other, you have a student-centered mission. How do you balance those challenges?
This is both a challenge and an opportunity for us. We are committed to being a student-centered school, and at the same time we need to be able to tell our story in a way that external groups can understand and validate.
We don’t want to let external requirements exclusively drive our program, but we are also accountable for using public funds wisely in service of our students. As with all charter schools, we need to show progress to have our charter renewed. It’s a constant negotiation and it requires a high level of transparency with our staff and space within our schedule for discussion, work groups, and time to wrestle with complexity together.
We need to review data, participate in our own inquiry cycles, and reflect upon the data and feedback we receive from the BPS and DESE, all while keeping our mission and students in mind. In our second year, we now have better systems and processes to facilitate these conversations and we are looking to improve them all the time.
As a charter school, you are required to collect data on student and teacher performance. What key indicators will you use to demonstrate the success of the BGA approach?
There are two key questions that we need keep asking: have we turned around the struggling school we were asked to restart? And are we building the successful school we envisioned and committed to in our charter?
After one year, we have strong data that indicates we have made great progress on the first question. Passing rates on MCAS and graduation rates are greatly improved, our dropout rate has been dramatically reduced, our ELLs and students with disabilities have shown greatly improved outcomes, and we made three years’ progress in one year’s time on many of the indicators that DESE look at for Turnaround Schools. We are very pleased with our progress as a Turnaround School thus far.
However, we know this isn’t enough. We need to become even more focused on meeting the needs of all students, not just those who are struggling the most. We need to move beyond passing to ensuring proficiency for all, defined in ways that respect the unique assets and needs of each student.
Going forward, we’ll be looking at the performance of students much more regularly and specifically. How can we know the needs of each student and create a school that responds to them? What are the factors that make our students resilient and in what ways can we build upon their strengths? How are our higher-skilled students doing, in addition to our struggling ones? How can our exhibitions and school-based performance assessments tell us more about our students and ask them to do more than traditional tests? How can we use technology to empower our students and break down the barriers of traditional schooling? How can we better live our mission as a green school and help our students move beyond awareness to agency? How can our students not just graduate but thrive in college or the workforce, even many years after they leave us?
As educators, we need to always be learning more and enhancing our teaching, supports, and programs for all students. Only then will we be on the path to firmly establishing the school we know we can and need to be.
For more information on Boston Green Academy, please feel free to contact them at: