The Neighborhood House Charter School in the Dorchester section of Boston is a prime example of why more children should have access to charter school education. That’s the goal of Question 2 on the November ballot, allowing the state Board of Education to approve up to 12 new charter schools a year. If more than 12 proposals for charters were submitted, priority would be given to proposals in areas with the worst performing schools.
The Neighborhood House started in 1995 with 51 students. It now has 468 students from pre-K through grade 8. By 2022, the expansion of high school grades will bring its students to 828. Sixty percent are African Americans; just under 20 percent, white; just under 20 percent Latino. The rest are Asian or multi-race. Thirty-five to 40 percent of students come from families whose language at home is not English. Twenty-five percent of students in middle school are special ed; in the elementary grades, 16 percent. By all measures, such diversity reflects the city of Boston.
A visit there this week speaks of so much more than numbers. The children in classes I visited had an extraordinary level of engagement and enthusiasm, arms raised to be called upon, some jumping out of their seats to share ideas. When students disagreed with each other, the tone was always respectful.
The school has half a dozen teachers in music and arts, and all levels have opportunities for exposure in those areas. Language arts enhance skills not only in fiction but in informational texts, the kinds of data analyses middle school students will increasingly be called upon to assess as they get older and need to evaluate claims and sort out evidence. Tablets and electronic white boards are integrated into some aspects of the classroom experience.
One wall displayed pictures of special trips the children get to take, a trip to the United Nations for sixth graders; to Washington, DC and Philadelphia for eighth graders. Students may even apply to participate in a smaller trip to a rain forest in Costa Rica.
There are two adults in each class, a teacher and a teaching fellow. The school day, which runs from 8 a.m. to 3:40 p.m., is longer than in other public schools. Some students have after-school activities and don’t leave until 6 p.m. When students reach middle school, they have a dress code: khaki or navy pants or skirts, collared shirts in white or light blue.
There is no teachers union at charter schools, which makes longer school days possible and facilitates moving teachers around to meet their needs and those of the children. What’s in it for teachers? Tons of professional development and mentoring. Salaries that are competitive with surrounding communities like Brookline and Arlington (though not with Boston’s traditional public schools, which are the fifth highest in the nation). There’s a small day care on site for the littlest children of faculty and staff. There are 401K plans, life insurance, short-and-long term disability, dental insurance. Salary structure is reviewed every five years collaboratively, with input from staff at every level.
A “quality of life” faculty committee meets three times a year without administrators present to encourage frank discussions of what’s working well and where changes need to be made. Across the board, the emphasis is on collaborative decision making.
Teaching is hard work, an intense process. The best teachers are those who don’t see their jobs as containing kids but encouraging them to succeed, fostering the right mix of engagement, sense of belonging, assertiveness and ability to be reflective.
Much of the criticism of proposed charter school expansion centers on the alleged drain of public dollars, which follow the students from traditional schools to charters. A recent study by the Mass. Taxpayers Foundation makes it clear that charter schools draw funding proportionate to the number of students, just under four percent of students, just under four percent of the money. The charter schools do not receive any money for facilities so they have to do some serious fundraising. The Neighborhood House, for example, has to raise about $1 million a year.
Is it all working? It surely seems so. Staff turnover is low. Eighth-grade students last year scored first in the state on the PARC test, a standardized alternative to MCAS exams. And, importantly, the Neighborhood House Charter is taking its best practices to help turn around other Boston public schools, notably, Harbor Middle School in Fields Corner, East Boston’s Donald McKay School, and Mattapan’s Mildred Avenue K-8. That opportunity for charter schools to be laboratories for the development of best educational practices is yet another reason why voters should say Yes on Question 2, authorizing charter school expansion. The 33,000 children on the waiting list shouldn’t have to wait for wide scale improvement to have the educational opportunity they need right now.
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