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.