Boston’s ‘A team’ of charter school leaders

Talent explains why the Hub is home to the nation's best charters

ANYONE LISTENING TO the pricey TV ad duels over whether to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts knows there’s plenty to disagree about. But only the careful listeners know there’s one undisputed point: Massachusetts has the nation’s best charter schools, as this just-released Brookings study makes clear.

The only remaining disagreement is how they got to be the best. The unions and most superintendents will argue they are the best only because there’s a cap limiting the number: So keep the cap!

Charter proponents will tell you they’re the best because of adroit charter school authorizing so lacking in many other states: So raise the cap to allow the creation or expansion of an extra 12 per year!

Incoming US education secretary John King at recent visit to College Bound Dorchester.  “It has to be viewed in the context of the civil rights era," he said of the federal education law.

US Education Secretary John King, who cofounded Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, is part of the rich talent pool that explains why Boston has the top charter schools in the country.

After writing a book about the history behind how the nation’s highest performing charter schools came about, I’d like to offer up an alternative  explanation: It’s all about a unique group of players who arrived in the right place, Boston, at the right time, the late 1990s.

In short, this is a people story, not a policy story. And the people are pretty interesting, even if their names are unlikely to make a top 100 list of Boston’s elite. In fact, many have left Boston to launch schools elsewhere, mostly in New York City (a brain drain that results from the cap on charters in Massachusetts).

If I had to rank the key players in this narrative, I have to start with Linda Brown. Never heard of her, right? Allow me to introduce.

Many years ago Brown ran a private school in Cambridge. From her perch there, it wasn’t hard to see the desperate need to reach more urban students in Boston. And then, in 1993, the Massachusetts Legislature, pushed hard by reform-minded business leaders, passed a law that greenlighted charter schools.

Problem was, nobody really knew what they were or how to start one, as Brown discovered when she investigated whether charters could be her vehicle to help Boston kids.

Brown’s solution: Become that expert who knew how to do all that. Working for a nonprofit, she wrote the how-to manual. Then, in 2000, she launched Building Excellent Schools, which leverages foundation dollars to handpick fellows with the right credentials to become top charter entrepreneurs. Those fellows visit the nation’s top charter schools, soak it all in, and then get help launching their own.

Today, that fellowship is as picky as Harvard or MIT. The selection rate for the roughly dozen picked each year is about 2 in 100 applicants. Those fellows are now sprinkled around the country, but Boston itself did not get neglected: Excel Academies and Boston Prep are just two examples of schools launched out of her program.

Now enter the next two players: Evan Rudall and John King. You’re probably heard of King (Hint: Name the US secretary of education) but Rudall was the original mover behind starting Roxbury Prep, one of the oldest high performing charter schools in the country. A Chicago native, Rudall was running a Summer Bridge program in Louisville, Kentucky, and thought it had so much promise that he decided to launch a full-time school that had the same impact. But how? That led him to the Harvard Graduate School of Education to investigate charters.

His original goal was to start a charter in Chicago, but the charter buzz in Boston changed his mind. Boston would be his launch city. The night before the charter application was due, Rudall went out to dinner in Somerville with John King, then a charter school teacher. A four-hour dinner discussing education led to Rudall pulling an all-nighter to stuff the application with all of King’s ideas. Soon, King and Rudall became co-founders of Roxbury Prep.

Next key players: Brett Peiser and Doug Lemov. Peiser, the son of New York school teachers, started out teaching in the city and then landed at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government just as the Legislature passed an expansion of the original Massachusetts charter school law. Convinced that New York would not pass a similar law (it did, later) Peiser began circulating within the tiny circle of Boston charter entrepreneurs.

One day while participating in a group effort to write standards for the about-to-open Academy of the Pacific Rim, he ended up sitting next to Doug Lemov, who with a college friend was launching the Academy.

Peiser, Lemov and other charter entrepreneurs, always helped and guided by Linda Brown, became part of Boston’s charter brain trust (which included a key non-Bostonian, Norman Atkins, founder of North Star Academy in Newark).

Peiser’s charter school, Boston Collegiate, gained fame for spinning off top talent. One Boston Collegiate teacher, Scott Given, left to become the principal of Excel Academy and then founded UP Education in Massachusetts, one of the only organizations leading in-district turnarounds. Sue Walsh, who served as a principal at Boston Collegiate, now plays a top role at Boston’s Building Excellent Schools.

Before returning to found charter schools in New York, Peiser handed an already-approved charter to one of Boston Collegiate’s math teachers, Jon Clark, who absorbed all that the Boston charter brain trust had to offer and folded it into Boston’s Brooke charters, possibly the highest performing charters in the country.

In more recent years, Atkins, Peiser, Lemov, King and Rudall, joined forces to form Uncommon Schools, one of the highest performing charter networks in the country.

Meet the Author

In the world of charter entrepreneurs, this is the A team. And Boston is the place where they all came together, which explains – regardless of whether you love or hate charters – why Boston has the best charter schools in the country.

Richard Whitmire is the author of The Founders: Inside the revolution to invent (and re-invent) America’s best charter schools.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    One of the names mentioned in this article is Jon Clark who recently authored a CommonWealth commentary, “More time in school key to charter success,” but the real key to Brooke Charter School’s K-8 success is not accepting students after 4th grade. Under Massachusetts charter schools law, rules and regulations…that’s allowed. How come that practice isn’t widely publicized? If Question 2 passes and hundreds of charter schools are authorized then how would not admitting students after 4th grade in K-8 charter schools work out? What about the legal practice of K-12 charter schools not accepting students after 6th grade? Or 9-12 charter schools not accepting students after 10th grade? And the universal charter school practice of not accepting students after February 15th? VOTE NO on Question 2.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    CommonWealth’s readers should consider clicking on the “nation’s best charter schools.” That leads to the Boston Globe’s Scot Lehigh commentary “Study of Boston charters should open some minds” referencing one of the craziest charter schools studies…ever, “Urban Charter School Study,” by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. That study created make believe public school students for comparison. That’s right… totally pretend students…not real at all…they’re “virtual.” You can’t make this charter school stuff up.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    So how’s Boston Preparatory Charter Public School doing? According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Boston Prep has a Level 2 Accountability Rating and is “Not meeting gap narrowing goals.” Even though Boston Prep is a Grades 6-12 charter school its students bail out big time over the course of grades 6 to 12. In 2010 Grade 6 had 87 students but by the time that class made it to Grade 12 in 2016 there were only 45 students remaining in the class. That’s a loss of 42 students. That means 48% of the class didn’t hang around long enough to graduate from Boston Prep’s high school. I wouldn’t call that a success at all. VOTE NO on Question 2.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    So how’s the Academy Of the Pacific Rim Charter Public School doing? According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Academy Of the Pacific Rim has a Level 2 Accountability Rating and is “Not meeting gap narrowing goals.” It’s another one of those charter schools that sheds huge numbers of its students as grades progress from 5 to 12. In 2009 there were 83 students in Grade 5 but when that class reached Grade 12 there were only 54 students remaining in the class. That’s a loss of 29 students. That means 35% of the class didn’t make it to graduate from high school at that charter. I don’t understand how that’s a success. VOTE NO on Question 2.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    So how is “one of the oldest high performing charter schools in the country,” Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, doing? According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in three of the most recent four years Roxbury Prep has a Level 2 Accountability Rating and is “Not meeting gap narrowing goals.” And in one of those years Roxbury Prep was cited for “Low MCAS participation (Less than 95%).”

  • Mhmjjj2012

    So how’s Boston Collegiate Charter School doing? According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in three of the most recent four years Boston Collegiate has a Level 2 Accountability Rating and is “Not meeting gap narrowing goals.” It’s another charter schools with a “Low assessment participation (Less than 95%).” It’s another charter school with disappearing students. In 2009 Grade 5 had 97 students but by 2016 when that class was Grade 12 there were only 65 students remaining for a loss of 32 students or 33%.

    • interestedingoodideas

      How many of those students you say were “lost” were actually just held back? There’s something to be said for making sure that when students graduate, they graduate with the skills and knowledge that reflects their grade level. Too many schools just wave kids through. And how does this compare to BPS, in terms of student movement? You make this sound simple (they’re losing students) when it’s not.

      • Mhmjjj2012

        If that were the case then the next class wouldn’t lose any students or would actually gain students but neither happened. The next class started out in 2010 with 99 students in grade 5 and ended up in 2016 with 78 students in grade 11 for a loss of 21 students with one more year to go. I don’t know why students are leaving charter schools like Boston Collegiate in such high numbers. Losing students is one issue but then Boston Collegiate doesn’t fill its empty seats after grade 8. According to its website: “We maintain waiting lists for 5th-8th grades and in the fall of each year we begin recruitment for the next entering 5th grade class.” I’d like to see a comparison to BPS too. The problem is there is very little substantive coverage on charter schools because very few reporters make an effort to look beyond the pro-charter schools press releases and rallies.

  • kathrynpl

    According to a report in the Globe, Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston had the most out-of-school suspensions of any school (traditional public or charter), subjecting nearly 60 percent of its students to out-of-school
    suspensions during the 2012-2013 school year. Is that what we call success? The students walk single file in the halls silently, no talking is allowed. What exactly are they being prepared for?