A Teacher’s Response

On March 13th The Boston Globe ran this article that touched on some of the issues surrounding UP Academy, an in district charter school opening this fall. A teacher from the Gavin, which will be closed and re-opened as UP Academy, wrote this response which is posted below. Update: Intro added by the author.

On March 13th, Laurence Harmon published a feature in the Boston Globe describing how success at South Boston’s new charter school, Unlocking Potential (“UP”) Academy, could change the terms of the education debate in America. He supported this narrative with sweeping generalizations about the quality of teaching currently available to Boston Public School students and a few quotes from UP founder and CEO Scott Given.  As a current teacher at the PF Gavin Middle School, the current school that UP will replace, I want to make sure that the “facts on the ground” go down on the public record, because they paint a picture that is quite different from the one Harmon describes.

“… poorly performing Gavin Middle School…”
My heart goes out to Josie and her mother, and I wish them all of the luck in the world in finding the right educational environment for their needs. However, I do want to point out that, had Josie attended the Gavin, she would have likely received a math education that compares favorably to most other public options in Boston:
– Gavin math students outperformed the BPS average on the MCAS last year according to the state’s Comprehensive Performance Index (CPI).
– The average Gavin student showed more improvement than 60% of their peers statewide on the MCAS last year, according to the state’s “student growth percentile” metric.
– This performance was recognized at both the state and federal level. The Gavin is the only BPS middle school to make “AYP” – Adequate Yearly Progress – in math for at least the last three years.
Every mainstream public middle school in Boston is “poorly performing” in the sense that they are designated “restructuring” by the state due to failure to make AYP for two consecutive years. While I am not saying that the Gavin is generating the kind of aggregate outcomes any of us want to see consistently, it is by most every measure outperforming its urban peers in math. As a scapegoat for what is obviously system-wide failure, the Gavin is a poor choice.

“…Unlocking Potential, a nonprofit charter school management organization that specializes in resuscitating failed schools.”
While “resuscitating failed schools” is a worthy goal, will someone please point out the fact that the organization has never actually done it? Their institutional history includes just one year of planning and hiring activities. They derive all of their institutional credibility from founder Scott Given’s resume, which in turn rests on having turned around the charter school “Excel Academy.” While this was quite an achievement, Excel had fewer than 200 students at the time with only 10% or so receiving special education services. The Gavin, with 500 students, a third of whom receive special education services, is a vastly different environment. Given (who as CEO of UP will not have a day to day role in the school) and his team are undoubtedly smart, well-intentioned people, and they will work hard to create a great learning environment; but according to a significant recent study, only 17% of charter schools outperform their public school counterparts, and many fail completely in their first few years. The education of my current sixth and seventh grade special education students, with whom the UP administrators have little to no experience, is at the mercy of their learning curve. UP has a lot to prove quickly, the stakes are high, and the short-term outcome –- the outcome for my students, who will experience UP in its first year –- is not so clear as this feature piece makes out.

“Critics complain that charter schools attract the best students, leaving special-needs students and non-native English speakers behind. But Unlocking Potential is determined to put that argument to rest….”

91% of current sixth graders and seventh graders choosing to stay represents a hard-won logistical victory on the part of UP.

Special education and English language earners are expensive to teach and fail to fit easily into the rigid remedial academic systems that many charter schools favor. That is why the percentage of the Gavin’s current population receiving those services is triple that of the Excel Academy, Given’s former school. Alarmingly, Boston Public Schools never required UP to put together a plan for these students before handing them the keys – which, as a special education teacher, I find criminally negligent – but the planning team for the new school has since devoted much time and effort to the task. While UP remains a new, untested organization and therefore has no experience serving large numbers of these students, they have made every effort to adjust their plans to the Gavin’s current population and have the resources to throw money at any contingencies they run into next year. Time will tell whether this will be enough to overcome their inevitable learning curve – it will be no slam dunk.

To read the full response by Ryan Ghan click here.

23. March 2011 by RK
Categories: Local News, School Closings | Leave a comment

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