Rocky road

Boston’s Renaissance charter school hits another bump. Is it back on track?

It was an unwelcome, but not unfamiliar, spot for the Renaissance Charter Public School to find itself in. In February, the state Board of Elemen­tary and Secondary Education voted for the second time to place the Boston school on probation because of faltering student achievement. It’s been a long, up and down ride for Renais­sance, one of the state’s first charter schools.

The move by state officials came just over two years after the school was taken off an earlier period of probation. At that time, Ren­aissance was showing strong gains on the state MCAS test and the state renewed its charter for another five years.

If the upswing seemed to demonstrate Renaissance’s capacity to finally get on track, the sharp decline in scores that followed added another troubling chapter to the school’s history of struggles.

“It’s not where it needs to be as a mature charter school,” state education commissioner Mitchell Chester said in an interview. “And more disturbingly, when I look at results for the last several years, they’re not moving in the right direction.”

English scores had been largely flat, while math scores took a sharp dive, with proficiency rates dropping from 54 percent in 2009 to 36 percent in 2012.

Renaissance leaders acknowledged the need to improve academic results, and the latest MCAS results, released in September, show their students are doing that. At the same time, when the state moved earlier this year to put Renais­sance on probation, the school’s leader bristled. The longtime head of the school countered with an argument that he has put forward before, one that cuts against the grain of the charter school movement nationally and the focus of Boston’s high-achieving charter school sector in particular.

“Our school is much more than MCAS scores and what MCAS scores show,” Roger Harris told the Boston Globe in February.

No one would dispute that. There is much that goes on in schools that can’t be reduced to test scores alone. And Renaissance, a K-6 school serving 944 mostly low-income, minority students, has been recognized for doing an exceptionally good job at those things, with a rich music and arts curriculum and an ambitious foreign language initiative that has introduced school-wide Mandarin Chinese instruction, something usually only seen in the wealthiest suburban districts. The school houses vision and dental clinics, providing “wrap-around” services meant to address a broader set of issues that can hold back student development and learning.

Renaissance officials and parents also point to a school curriculum and culture designed to help children build character and poise. Those are areas that are receiving increasing attention in education circles, where some argue that such non-cognitive “social-emotional” skills are as important as performance in academic subjects.

Renaissance has never been part of the high-flying cohort of Boston charter schools with eye-popping scores. But at charter schools in particular, the expectation is that such a focus and a full offering of enrichment activities come along with, not in place of, strong results on core academics. That has made the Renaissance saga an ongoing challenge for state education officials, raising questions about the proper level of oversight for charter schools, including how to handle charters that experience repeated downturns in academic performance.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When Renaissance opened its doors in 1995 to great fanfare, it was heralded as a flagship in the state’s entry into the new world of charter schools. Authorized by the 1993 Education Reform Act, charter schools are public schools that operate auto­nom­ously from local districts. They have broad freedom over staffing, curriculum, and budgeting, and nearly all operate without unionized teachers and the thick contracts that reform advocates have said can interfere with the ability to deliver quality schools, particularly in low-achieving urban districts. In exchange for that independence, charters were expected to deliver good results for students.

A study released this year by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, widely recognized as the leading source of research on charter schools, singled out Boston as having the highest-performing charter sector in the country. While a number of Boston’s 16 charter schools have eye-popping achievement scores, with proficiency rates of greater than 90 percent in math and English, Renaissance has always lagged far behind this high-flying cohort.

Renaissance moved from downtown Boston to Hyde Park in 2010, renovating a former industrial complex at a cost of $39 million.

The school faced challenges from the beginning. For its first seven years, Renaissance was managed by Edison Schools, a for-profit education management organization under which school operations were chaotic from the start. Also hampering the school was its location. Renais­sance was housed in downtown Boston, in a Park Square building that was the original site of the University of Massachu­setts Boston. The 13-story building was hardly the ideal setting for nearly 1,500 rambunctious elementary school students, the huge population the school started with.

Boston mayoral candidate John Connolly, who has made education a centerpiece of his campaign, often points to the three years he spent teaching in the 1990s. One of those years was at the Renaissance school, where he taught sixth grade. Connolly is a strong charter school proponent, but he told WBUR radio in September that he nonetheless knows firsthand charters can also fail, calling Renaissance an “unmitigated disaster” during his time there.

In 2000, the state renewed the school’s charter after its initial five years despite lagging performance. In 2005, however, when Renaissance came up for its next renewal, the state board of education gave it only provisional approval, attaching strict conditions for academic improvement that the school had to meet by 2007. “There has not been any significant increase in overall student performance [at Renaissance] during the course of its charter,” read the state report on the school’s first 10 years of operation. At the time, a majority of fourth graders, for example, failed to reach proficiency on the English MCAS, while only 9 percent of them scored proficient in math, compared with 24 percent of Boston’s district public school students and 42 percent of fourth-graders statewide.

The problems at Renaissance came to a dramatic head just before the renewal as the school’s board of trustees, losing confidence in Harris’s leadership, voted to fire the veteran school principal (“In need of a Renaissance,” CW, Fall 2005). Harris, a prominent black educator, arrived at Renaissance in its third year after serving as a Boston public school principal at the much-acclaimed Timilty Middle School in Roxbury.

The showdown was filled with political intrigue and Beacon Hill power plays, as African-American members of Boston’s State House delegation aggressively pushed back at the move to oust Harris. Under pressure, the school’s trustees reversed their vote. In an unusual move for a state official, David Driscoll, then the state commissioner of education, even waded into the fray, urging the school’s board to drop the matter. Harris stayed on, while most members of the board resigned.

Driscoll hardly sounded a note of confidence in the school, however. At the same time that the state renewed the Renaissance charter with strict conditions, two other struggling Boston schools had their charters revoked. “Whereas the other two were Fs, you could say Renaissance was a D-minus, particularly in the area of student achievement,” Driscoll told Common­Wealth at the time. “It’s clearly not a success story.”

The probation conditions require Renaissance to show strong improvement by 2014 when its charter comes up for renewal. State officials viewed Renaissance’s huge student population—it was one of the biggest charter schools in the state—as a further impediment to its turnaround. In addition to insisting that the school ratchet up its academic performance, it was ordered to reduce enrollment to 1,240 by phasing out its middle-school grades. Renaissance was also ordered to give up plans it had to eventually extend the school through 12th grade.

Two years later, in 2007, with the school not meeting the academic achievement goals the state had set as conditions of the charter renewal, Renaissance was placed on formal probation. The state added more conditions to the school’s charter, requiring that it relocate to a new building better suited to an elementary school and that it reduce further its enrollment to 880 students.

In 2009, the state board voted to renew the school’s charter, and a year later it removed it from probation. Ren­aissance had redoubled its focus on academics and was showing strong results, a striking turnaround from the years of flagging performance. Proficiency rates on the English portion of the MCAS went from 37 percent in 2006 to 61 percent in 2009, while math proficiency rose during that time from 24 percent to 54 percent. For most grades and subgroup populations, Renaissance was significantly outperforming Boston’s district public school students.

In 2010, Renaissance moved from downtown Boston to a beautiful new $39 million complex in Hyde Park, a combined renovation of industrial buildings and new construction made possible by sale of the downtown building where the school had been housed. Together with athletic fields and a playground on the six-acre site, the new facility gave Renaissance the type of school setting that it had long aspired to have, and one that state officials had deemed essential for the school’s success.

The Hyde Park location features a track,
playground, and garden.

The move was not accompanied by continued academic gains, however. In February of this year, Chester, the state education commissioner, recommended that the state board of education again place Renaissance on probation, citing performance levels that were “very troubling,” especially the decrease in the school’s math scores. The board agreed, instructing Renaissance to have an outside consultant help it formulate a plan to improve performance. The probation conditions said the school must show strong improvement by 2014, when the Renaissance charter is again up for renewal.

The reduction in enrollment ordered by the state has meant a big cut in the school’s budget, which is based on a per-pupil funding formula. The school has eliminated about 50 positions and its budget has been cut by more than $1 million a year.

Renaissance officials have pointed to those budget and staffing cuts, as well as the adjustment to a restructuring of its organizational model to better manage its reduced enrollment, as explanations for the multiyear tailing off of scores. “This dip in scores correlates directly to the multifaceted and profound transition the school underwent during this period,” school officials wrote in a statement provided to CommonWealth.

Renaissance officials initially declined to be interviewed for this story, saying in May that they would talk and welcome a visit to the school after new MCAS scores were available in the fall. In September, however, with new scores available, Renaissance leaders backed off that pledge, refusing to be interviewed or to allow a reporter to visit. In­stead, Harris and the chairman of the school’s board of trustees, Lennitt Bligen, provided a statement to Common­Wealth with their account of the school’s recent history and the positive course they believe Renaissance is now on.

The school’s performance increased markedly in the most recent round of MCAS testing, with particularly sharp gains in math, the subject that had seen the biggest falloff. Just over half (53 percent) of Renaissance students scored proficient in math and 58 percent scored proficient in English. Both of those figures exceed proficiency rates for the Boston public schools. As for demographic subgroups, black and Hispanic students, who make up 94 percent of the school’s population, had English scores placing them in the 91st and 92nd percentiles, respectively, when compared with their peers statewide, according to Renaissance. In math, the school says its black and Hispanic students are in the 79th and 84th percentiles, respectively, among their demographic peers statewide.

Renaissance officials maintain that the reconfiguration of the school leadership structure has strengthened and stabilized the school. Renaissance “has firmly established its operational structure and feels well positioned for high student achievement this year and into the future,” Harris and Bligen wrote in their statement.

With the gains in math, Renaissance MCAS proficiency rates are back to levels the school had achieved in 2009 and 2010. It seems plausible that the improvements will be enough to satisfy state officials when they consider whether the school has met the terms of its probation.

The rebound at Renaissance is unquestionably good news. The school’s history of ups and downs and the repeated intervention of state education officials over the years, however, raise questions that apply not only to Renais­sance but to the charter school movement more broadly. Charter schools are premised on the idea that, given un­precedented autonomy over nearly every aspect of their operation, these schools will generate consistent, high-quality student outcomes.

“There is a bit of a policy paradox here, where the whole core of the philosophy of charter schools is that they have this autonomy and are free from the kind of direct district or state oversight that traditional schools have,” Chester said. “And the paradox there is, when they’re struggling, what’s the state’s role? How much time do we give a charter school before we decide it’s not going to be a success?”

The results of one national study that looked at that question would suggest the best approach is not to give struggling charters too much time at all. CREDO, the Stan­ford research center, recently looked at the degree to which a charter school’s early track record seems to predict its longer-term performance. The study found that in the vast majority of cases there is, in fact, a close connection.

“Our research shows that if you start wobbly, chances are you’ll stay wobbly,” the center’s director, Margaret Raymond, said at the time of the study’s release. “Similarly, if a school is successful in producing strong academic progress from the start, our analysis shows it will remain a strong and successful school.”

Of course, there can be exceptions to that strong pattern, and Renaissance is out to show that it is one of them.

“Renaissance has proven before that it was capable of turning things around and getting on the right path. That’s a complicating factor,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank that says the state should insist on high standards for charter schools.

Massachusetts has seen another charter school that had struggled for many years achieve a dramatic turnaround in performance. In 2009, the Lowell Community Charter School, a K-6 school that opened in 2000, was recommended for closure because of abysmal student performance levels but avoided that fate at the 11th hour. The state agreed to keep it open, but only if the school undertook a wholesale change in its leadership and board of trustees. Student scores at the school have risen markedly since that time.

The state-mandated consultant’s report on Ren­ais­sance, prepared by the research firm WestEd, did not recommend wholesale changes as much as it encouraged the school to continue steps it already seems to have put in place last year before the state stepped in, including new programs and practices related to math instruction.

The report also offers general praise for the atmosphere at Renaissance, saying the “leadership and staff have created a dynamic learning environment for students and adults.” It also points to the enrichment offerings and other parts of the school’s program that aren’t captured in MCAS scores, echoing the themes Harris often sounds.

“Many of the structures and opportunities that make the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School unique and stimulate student interest and disposition toward lifelong learning are not measurable by mathematics and [English] achievement scores alone,” says the consultant report. “These intangibles, and the positive feeling within the [Renaissance] school community as a whole, are unique and can only be experienced through direct observation.”

That description is exactly what drew Kirk Womack and his wife to enroll their three daughters at Renaissance. He says two older daughters had successful runs at the school, while their youngest daughter is excelling in third grade there.

“They have a whole family aspect to everything,” said Womack. “The way that they conduct business and the way that they hold things together—my kids feel comfortable. It’s the rapport that the teachers have with the students, that’s what’s strong for me. I’ll take that over anything. You’ve got to have interpersonal skills, too. You’ve got to teach kids how to talk to people, behavior, manners.”

Harris, who is paid $217,000 a year, made similar points at the state board of education meeting in February, when Renaissance was put on probation. “We build confidence, character, and citizenship,” he told the board, according to the Globe, adding that probation “casts a shadow of doubt” over the school’s work and commitment to its students.

The sorts of skills Harris ticked off are getting more attention in education circles, as some argue that the narrow focus in recent years on testing and academic achievement has ignored other factors that may be as or more important to children’s ultimate success. Writer Paul Tough put a big spotlight on these issues in his 2012 book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. What ultimately matters, writes Tough, is not just a child’s test score but whether we help him or her “develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence.”

Charter schools, including several others in Boston, have embraced the idea of developing those character traits in students (“Content of their character,” CW, Winter 2013). And there is research underway to develop ways of measuring such qualities. Until such measures are more fully developed, however, leaders in the charter school movement come down hard on the idea of lessening any expectations for academic gains.

“The inevitable force of politics is to keep failing schools open and to apply metrics other than academic performance as a reason to keep a school open,” said Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “That’s what we warn against, realizing that that is the normal course of how education works. But that’s not how we want charters to work.”  

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

As with so many debates in education or, for that matter, many other policy areas, this does not come down to an either-or proposition. Children will need strong academic skills as well as other non-cognitive strengths to navigate their way in an increasingly complicated, knowledge-based economy.

At the Renaissance school, which has had to pick itself up more than once, that presents school leaders and teachers with a character challenge of their own. While providing a rich curriculum of arts, Mandarin, and other offerings, does Renaissance have the persistence and grit to also stay focused on the achievement in core academics that is also crucial to its students’ future success?