Monday, September 06, 2010

Best Schools 2010: These Roxbury Prep Kids Can Kick Your Kid’s MCAS!

Boston Magazine did a lengthy profile of the remarkable Roxbury Prep, which recently joined the Uncommon Schools network (


With all that attention to detail, Roxbury Prep, despite its location in a relatively poor, violent neighborhood, has become one of the highest-performing schools in the state. It runs sixth through eighth grade, and its 265 students — admitted via lottery — are all minorities; last year more than 70 percent of them were disadvantaged enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch. As a charter school, Roxbury Prep is accountable only to the state, not to the Boston public school system, and therefore can employ nonunion teachers. This means a long school day: Classes start at 7:45 a.m. and end at 4:15 p.m., though most kids stay until 5:30 for tutoring, clubs, or (alas) detention. And for three weeks each August, teachers return to the school to prep for the upcoming year.


As Boston's public schools find themselves struggling with abysmal marks, budget woes, and a troubling gap between white and minority students' performance — 12 of the state's 35 worst schools are in the city, four in Roxbury — Roxbury Prep is thriving. Last year 98 percent of the school's eighth graders scored as advanced or proficient on the MCAS English exam, and 96 percent scored similarly on math. That's well above the state averages of 78 and 48 percent, respectively, and obliterates the Boston districtwide averages of 59 and 28 percent. Roxbury Prep's scores beat some tony suburban districts', too: In Newton, for instance, the numbers for eighth graders were 9 and 19 percent lower, respectively.

Roxbury Prep's MCAS science number isn't quite as jaw-dropping (52 percent advanced or proficient, compared with 60 in Newton), but it still beats the state figure of 39 percent and the citywide number, 10 percent.

Think about that. Poor black and Latino kids from Roxbury are whipping the rest of Massachusetts on the MCAS. In short, Austin and company believe they've found a way to solve one of education's biggest problems: closing the achievement gap.

For the 11 years of Roxbury Prep's existence, that belief has been relevant mostly just to the kids who tromp up the back stairwell of a nursing home to reach their classes each day — the school is incongruously jammed into the Benjamin Healthcare Center's third floor. But Roxbury Prep is about to get a lot more important. All of Boston's charter schools, in fact, are about to get a lot more important. As part of its effort to win Obama administration Race to the Top grant funds, the state legislature in January passed a bill doubling the number of charter school seats in the state's lowest-performing districts. For Boston, that means an estimated 5,900 more kids — kindergarten through high school — will get the chance to go to a school like Roxbury Prep, according to the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. Previously, charter funding was limited to 9 percent of district spending, but over the next seven years, that number will climb to 18 percent.

Rather than risk new ventures, the law encourages current, proven charter schools to expand. Roxbury Prep jumped most aggressively at the opportunity, announcing that it would seek charters for three new middle schools and a high school, aiming to open the first of these a year from now. Other high-performing charters, like Excel Academy and the Edward W. Brooke school, have also put in papers to replicate. The state will decide in February who gets charters.

The impact will be immediate: Most obviously, there are the 5,900 students who will drop out of the Boston system to attend the new schools. The expansion is also likely to amp up tension between charters and their critics, who argue that the schools skim off the district's most ambitious students while sucking away funds. Perhaps most interesting, Boston's charter boomlet could resuscitate the city's once-thriving education-reform culture, which has been moribund for nearly 10 years. If that happens, one day we may be talking about how impressive all 55,000 of the city's students are, not just the 265 at one school.


Best Schools 2010: These Roxbury Prep Kids Can Kick Your Kid's MCAS!

Charter school advocates think they know how to save our students. With charters like Roxbury Prep set to expand dramatically, we're about to find out if they're right.


Posted on 8/30/10   Page 1 of 7


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