After rejection of ‘innovation’ plan, Charlestown High faces new reckoning

Struggling Boston school will be the focus of a district ‘intervention team’

CALL IT THE push-me-pull-you saga of troubled Charlestown High School. 

One by one, teachers at Charlestown High spoke at a recent Boston School Committee hearing, railing against a proposal to convert the building to an “innovation school.” The proposal, submitted by a group of parents, would have tapped provisions of a 2010 state reform law to remake the school structure with greater flexibility over staffing, curriculum, and scheduling. 

Proponents wanted the school to enroll all students in “early college” programs through which they would graduate from high school with a two-year associate’s degree or career certificate. They wanted the school to adopt a more robust “inclusion” model that has special education students learning in mainstream classes staffed with two teachers – a regular education and special education instructor. The plan also called for the school to give enrollment priority to students from three area elementary schools – schools that critics said enroll white students at greater rates than the district as a whole. 

The autonomy a new school leader would have under the innovation model to retain or let go of staff clearly set off alarms among Charlestown High teachers, but the plan was troubled from the start by charges that there had been no effort to engage the school community in discussion of its elements. 

“This feels like a hostile takeover,” Cecil Carey, a Charlestown High teacher, said in testimony in December to the School Committee. “The unstated goal is to empty out a school of experienced teachers and families of color so they can use its resources,” he said, calling the proposal “an example of structural racism.” 

The innovation school proposal, which had to win approval of a three-member screening committee made up of the superintendent, the chair of the school committee, and a representative of the Boston Teachers Union, was unanimously rejected last month

“The plan moved forward without any engagement of the Charlestown school community,” Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in comments prior to the 3-0 vote, adding that the plan was “vague” on the overarching principle of “equity” that must drive all district actions.

The school department may have rejected the makeover plan for the school, but it is hardly giving a stamp of approval to the status quo at Charlestown High. Just a week after the innovation school vote, Cassellius announced that she will form an “intervention team” to address problems at the chronically low performing school, which has a graduation rate of just 55 percent and where only 16 percent of students are meeting expectations on the MCAS English test and just 28 percent are doing so in math. 

“I am appointing this Intervention Team to review data on student opportunities and outcomes recognizing that we have work to do to deliver on the promise of an excellent and equitable education for all students at Charlestown HS,” Cassellius wrote in a letter last week to the school community. 

The district contract with the teachers union allows the superintendent to name a seven-member team to review all aspects of a school’s operation and performance and make recommendations for change. It includes three members appointed by the superintendent, three named by the union, and one appointment made jointly by the two sides. 

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.

Cassellius also announced that she will name intervention teams for the McKinley K-12 School  and Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. 

Some might argue that significant problems at the three schools require more sweeping change than is likely to come from the intervention reviews. The test for the district: whether these lighter-touch approaches to long struggling schools can make a difference in meaningfully moving the needle on low performance measures.