Ask a supporter of charter schools whether that vogue new concept holds promise for inner-city children. By way of an answer, you might get invited to a quiet corner in the hardscrabble Dorchester neighborhood of Boston.
There, in a building one could easily miss while searching for a school, a remarkable story is unfolding. Inside the warm, cozy classrooms of the Neighborhood House Charter School, the 180 students enjoy class sizes of 18 students–and two teachers. The student-teacher ratio, at less than 10 to 1, would be the envy of some expensive private schools; the typical public school ratio is 17 to 1. Founded by the local settlement-house network–a movement that has long offered services to ease the transition of new immigrants–the school serves as a center for healthcare, social services, after-school activities and adult education. A local newspaper reports, “Collaboration has been expanded beyond the building walls, and the entire community is recognizing the benefits.”
New families are welcomed by a coordinator in the school’s parent center, who visits homes and helps connect parents to services they need. The coordinator also oversees the “family learning contracts”–a promise parents sign to help with their child’s studies, get their kid to school on time and help develop the child’s “Individual Learning Plan.” An independent evaluation notes, “Every teacher in the school makes detailed observations about each of his or her students every day. The teacher-student ratio is so low that most teachers have totally internalized the ILP of their individual advisees.” Students attend school from 8 am until as late as 6 pm, when adult education begins. And they attend with a vengeance, posting an impressive 97 percent attendance rate. No child has ever been expelled from Neighborhood House.
The student body, while not a precise mirror of the neighborhood, is mostly black and mostly poor; white students make up less than a third of the enrollment, and 51 percent of the students are eligible for a free lunch. Yet Headmaster Kevin Andrews, who worked as a principal in the posh Newton and Brookline suburbs, has brought the standards of affluent, largely white schools to the inner city. Despite a pay scale at least $5,000 below other Boston public schools–a trade-off for the small classes–he has attracted a staff dominated by experienced teachers. Many are graduates of Ivy League schools and hold master’s degrees.
Among parents, he has tried to build the same sense of “entitlement,” as he puts it, that prevails in the suburbs. Some parents accustomed to busing their kids to the suburbs, Andrews says, hesitated to raise their voices in those schools “to avoid blowing it.” Here, he pushes them to fight for the best. The results have drawn national notice. On recent statewide tests–which despite all their limitations are the main measuring stick for the media and the public–Neighborhood House fourth graders outperformed every other school in Massachusetts in English and language arts. In math and science Neighborhood House took the top scores in Boston.