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Johnson to name nonprofit as partner

Charter group will run one of Boston’s struggling schools

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / June 30, 2010

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School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson will tap a charter school management organization to run one of the district’s low-achieving middle schools, a first for the state, under a plan she will present tonight to the Boston School Committee.

Johnson has not decided which middle school would be overseen by Unlocking Potential Inc., a new Boston nonprofit management organization founded by a former charter school principal.

A key part of the proposal calls for converting the middle school into an in-district charter school, which would enable the management organization to operate under greater freedom from the teacher union’s contract as it overhauls programs, dismisses teachers, and makes other changes.

The partnership is being pursued under a new state education law that aims to turn around consistently underperforming schools and is an element of a broader plan by Johnson that calls for creating two other new charter schools. The goal is to have the three schools ready by September 2011, increasing the total number of in-district charter schools to five.

“We feel excited to be generating new ideas and strategies to meet the needs of students,’’ Johnson said. “We certainly are hopeful there are lessons that can be learned from charter schools.’’

A growing chorus of politicians, from Mayor Thomas M. Menino to President Obama, has urged superintendents to turn to charter school operators to assist in overhauling low-achieving schools, impressed that many charter schools have strong track records of bolstering student achievement. But the movement has irked teacher unions, who say charter schools achieve success by drawing in higher-caliber students and forcing out those who do not measure up, assertions hotly contested by charter schools.

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, criticized Johnson’s plan to become a partner with a charter school management organization, saying that “it sends a bad message to our hardworking staff.’’

“It shows a lack of confidence in our own abilities,’’ Stutman said, referring to teachers and administrators alike. “It will be taken as a slap in the face.’’

The teachers union, however, will have little power to block the effort. The new state education law allows 14 in-district charter schools to open across the state, either outright or through a conversion, without union consent.

Boston will soon face greater competition for students from the independently run charter schools in the city. The new education law will allow creation of about 5,500 additional seats over the next few years at independently run charter schools in the city. Johnson’s proposals for in-district charter schools will require approval from the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the city’s School Committee.

JC Considine, a spokesman for the Education Board, said Johnson’s proposal to have a management firm convert a low-achieving school into a charter school would be a first for the state. The effort would be similar to those undertaken in such cities as Philadelphia and Los Angeles, which education specialists say have yielded some success.

Johnson said she has had difficulty finding a charter school operator willing to take over an academically struggling school. Most want to start fresh with a new staff and student body, she said.

But the mission of Unlocking Potential is to do the hard work of turning around a school, said its founder and chief executive, Scott Given. He said he found such work rewarding when he became principal of Excel Academy Charter School in East Boston, guiding it to MCAS success after a period of lackluster performance.

“It’s important for us to prove any child can succeed at very high levels,’’ Given said. Whichever middle school is converted will go by a new name, UP Academy, Given said.

The two in-district charter schools starting anew are being developed by school district staff and will not be run by a private charter school operator.

One proposal is the Green Academy, which would focus on environmental education and serve students in grades 6-12 who are at risk of quitting school. The other proposal, which is being developed by the Timilty Middle School in Roxbury, is for an “early college’’ high school at Roxbury Community College, where students could earn a diploma and an associate’s degree simultaneously. Each student would be assigned a mentor.

“We want kids to come in and have a rigorous curriculum and make sure they have the support to do it,’’ said Valeria Lowe-Barehmi, the Timilty’s principal. “The school will be open to any student in the city.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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