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In 1st, private firm opens Boston charter school

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / August 29, 2011

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The tweets from the 31-year-old Harvard Business School graduate flowed freely this summer as he chronicled his company’s historic launch of a public school in Boston:

“We received the keys to UP Academy today, a big moment in our history,’’ Scott Given, the chief executive officer of Unlocking Potential, wrote July 1.

“4,000 applicants for teaching positions at UP Academy. . . We’ve hired 53 unbelievable team members. Just a few more spots to fill,’’ Given wrote July 14.

“500 new student desks arriving soon,’’ he tweeted Aug 1.

This morning, nearly 500 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are slated to arrive at UP Academy in South Boston, with high stakes for the private company as it sets out to dramatically boost the students’ achievement.

The Boston public schools’ contract with Unlocking Potential marks the first time the city has tapped a school management firm to run one of its schools, a move that has prompted the city’s teachers union to accuse Superintendent Carol R. Johnson and the School Committee of trying to privatize public education.

Johnson has brushed off those concerns, saying the district needs to look both inside and outside for innovative ideas to overhaul public education. She has so much faith in Unlocking Potential that she asked the School Committee to give the company a second school next fall. A vote is pending.

“I could not be more excited than I am right now,’’ Given said, as he walked last week to a meeting of teachers in the school’s all-purpose room, where ornate light fixtures hang from the ceiling and where students will gather for lunch and tutoring. “The message we are delivering is really resonating with families.’’

About 85 percent of the seventh- and eighth-graders this year are from the Gavin Middle School - the school that UP Academy is replacing - while the sixth-graders are entirely new to the school building.

Many of the students have myriad challenges: About one-third have disabilities, a third are learning to speak English, and the majority live in low-income households, Given said.

Gavin Middle School experienced difficulty in educating these students, prompting Johnson to seek the unique arrangement with Unlocking Potential.

On the 2010 MCAS exams, fewer than 30 percent of Gavin students scored proficient or advanced in English and just 23 percent were proficient in math. Four years ago, the state designated the Gavin as being in need of “restructuring’’ because of chronically low MCAS scores.

Unlocking Potential has set an ambitious goal of getting 75 percent of students to score proficient or advanced in both English and math within four years. It will not be an easy feat, Given said.

“We are going to make mistakes this year, because it’s a challenge to open a school with 500 students. But we will learn from our mistakes and get better through the course of the year,’’ he said.

UP Academy is the first school that Unlocking Potential has ever run, and although the company is hoping to add at least another school to its portfolio each year, two School Committee members have raised concerns about that idea, given its lack of a track record.

Richard Stutman, the teachers’ union president, said tapping a private firm to run a public school is an insult to educators employed by the city.

“Why would we have to go outside this great system to find someone worthy of running a school?’’ Stutman asked.

While Unlocking Potential is new, Given is seen by many as a wunderkind of the Massachusetts charter school world.

At age 24, he became principal of Excel Academy Charter School in East Boston, which operates independently of the city’s school system, reporting directly to the state. He propelled that middle school into one of the state’s highest-performing schools.

The partnership between the city’s school system and Unlocking Potential exemplifies the ever-warming relations between the city and charter schools.

The city and Boston’s more than a dozen independently run charter schools also are drafting a compact, formally outlining cooperation on several fronts, such as sharing successful academic programs.

“The cold war between charter and the Boston school district appears to be ending, replaced by an era of much more cooperation,’’ said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a charitable group that has been pushing for more charter schools.

UP Academy is one of two “in-district’’ charter schools the School Department is launching this fall. The other is Boston Green Academy, which opened to students earlier this month on the third floor of the former South Boston High School. A group of Boston school administrators was key in launching the academy.

The two schools are the first in-district charter schools to open in the city in more than a decade. A change in state law last year allows Boston to open at least four charter schools without approval of the teachers union.

At a parent orientation last week, many parents and students expressed high hopes for the new school.

“I think the school will push me more than the last school,’’ said Tashnie, an eighth-grader who declined to give her last name and who attended the Gavin last year. “I think the school will help me get into a good high school.’’

Many parents said they liked the fact that UP Academy would assign two hours of homework every night and that it has a dress code: a black polo shirt, khakis, a black belt, and black shoes.

They also said they appreciated the school’s aggressive communication efforts: The school frequently calls parents to make sure they received notices in the mail, and representatives also met individually with families last year, often in their living rooms, to encourage them to send their children to the school.

“I think he’s going to get a better education here,’’ said Marie Louis, whose son is a sixth-grader. ’’ I heard charter schools have more teachers, fewer students in class, and the teachers are more focused on students.’’

But some parents are worried the school might be too strict.

“If children are not in uniform, I don’t think it’s fair they will be sent home,’’ said Brenda Williams, mother of an eighth-grader.

But as she reflected on the upcoming school year, she added, “I’m hoping it will be smooth sailing.’’

Contact James Vaznis at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeVaznis.