State board places Boston Renaissance Charter School on probation

MALDEN — State officials on Monday placed the Boston Renaissance Charter School on probation, formally putting the school on notice that it must improve student academic performance or risk closure when its charter comes up for renewal in two years.

By a tally of 7 to 1, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted for probation, despite pleas from Renaissance school leaders who fear the designation will unsettle families, hurt staff morale, and hinder fund-raising efforts.

Mitchell D. Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education and secretary to the board, complimented the school in remarks before the vote, despite having recommended that it be placed on probation.

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“I don’t want to diminish in any way what you heard about the breadth of [programming] that this school” offers, Chester told fellow board members.

He said that in making his recommendation, he responded to concerns about declining academic performance at the school, “particularly in regards to mathematics, but not solely.”

Roger Harris, the school’s superintendent and chief executive officer, told the board before the vote that his staff recognizes the need for improvement.

But he also defended the school’s record, ticking off a list of student accomplishments including learning to speak Mandarin, reading and writing music, and embracing digital technology in the arts.

Harris also said the school in Hyde Park provides services such as occupational therapy to students, most of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“We build confidence, character, and citizenship,” said Harris, adding that probation “casts a shadow of doubt over our work and questions our commitment to children.”

Renaissance, one of the city’s oldest and largest charter schools, has faced the possibility of closing before. In 2007, the state placed the school on probation for poor academic performance. It also ordered a reduction in enrollment from 1,240 students to 880 students by 2009 and told it to find a more suitable building for a school than the midrise building in Park Square once owned and occupied by the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Renaissance moved aggressively to fix its problems, and achievement improved. In December 2010, the state board ended the school’s probation.

But scores on the MCAS statewide standardized tests have been sliding since 2009, when 54 percent of students scored advanced or proficient in math and 61 percent scored in those two categories in English. By comparison, only 36 percent of students scored proficient or advanced last spring in math and 53 percent in English.

In an effort to ensure future success, Chester is requesting that the school hire an outside consultant to evaluate its programs and to develop a plan by June 15 to remedy the academic performance.

Kirk Womack, 42, of Hyde Park, the parent of a second-grader at Renaissance, said at Monday’s board meeting that pupils at the school learn valuable life skills, and he commended the staff.

“Every time I come into the building, I’m treated just like family,” he said. “They keep me well-updated on the achievements and the nonachievements of my child. . . . I’ve seen them teach nothing but leadership to the children, unity, and community service.”

The board also voted to adopt Chester’s recommendation to freeze enrollment at 944 students rather than compel it to reduce the population to 880.

School officials have said the mandated enrollment decline has strained its financial resources.

Renaissance, like other Boston charter schools, receives funding from the public school system’s state aid for each child that enrolls there.

Beverly A. Holmes, vice chairwoman of the state board, was the lone dissenter on the probation recommendation. She suggested that Renaissance could operate under conditions that would require it to make improvements, rather than being placed on probation.

Matthew Malone, the state’s education secretary and a member of the state board, recused himself from the vote on Renaissance, citing a personal relationship with Harris that could call into question his impartiality in the matter.

Also Monday, the board approved three new proposed charter schools in Boston and New Bedford.

City on a Hill Charter Public School New Bedford is slated to open in fall 2014 and will enroll 280 students in grades nine through 12, the elementary and secondary education department said in a statement released after the vote.

City on a Hill Charter Public School II will open this fall in Boston and enroll the same number of students in grades nine through 12, while UP Academy Charter School of Dorchester will open in the fall and enroll 750 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The enrollment numbers are based on when the schools reach their full capacity.

The board also approved requests on Monday night by eight charter schools in Boston and Chelsea to increase student enrollment.

They are Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School; Codman Academy Charter Public School; Conservatory Lab Charter School; three Edward W. Brooke charter schools; and two Excel Academy charter schools.

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