New Bedford Standard Times
April 11, 2012
When the mayor of your city says that your schools are "falling backward" you've got a problem. It is a problem that New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell wants to fix and he has made school improvement a priority of his administration. He's not alone.
Like many Gateway City mayors, Mitchell is determined to see the city's schools improve. Thirteen of the state's 19 lowest performing school districts are in Gateway Cities, smaller cities like New Bedford that anchor regional economies.
After almost 20 years of education reform, the achievement gap isn't closing.
At one time, the achievement gap wasn't such a big deal. New Bedford's mills provided jobs and decent wages for many. But those days are long gone.
Gateway Cities like New Bedford can no longer afford to have one-third of their high school freshman fail math and English and a little more than half graduate from high school. What cities want — and need — are better educated kids and a more skilled workforce. Education, knowledge and skills are how wealth is generated today.
The mayor has engaged the community in a series of forums about the future of the school system. The city has also proposed creating several new Innovation Schools, a new type of school authorized by the recent education reform law that would provide increased funding and flexibility to introduce longer school days and initiate other reforms to boost academic performance. The city hopes to have two Innovation Schools open by next fall.
These are important steps, but only the beginning.
Innovation schools can make a difference and the city's interest in them may spark some new thinking about public education. But the city should not pursue a singular reform strategy at the expense of a proven academic model that has already brought high quality educational opportunities to New Bedford.
New Bedford has two charter public schools — Global Learning and Alma Del Mar — and there is room for expansion under the charter school "cap." City leaders ought to be thinking about ways to add charter school capacity by working with local charter leaders on the expansion of the existing charter schools and by enticing high-performing charter schools from other urban areas to locate in New Bedford.
For the past 15 years, charter public schools have proven that children from urban communities can achieve at the same level as children from the affluent suburbs. Charters are moving disadvantaged children from the back of the pack to the front of the pack, arming them with the tools they will need to succeed in college and the work force.
Alma del Mar is in its initial years, so there is little academic data on performance yet. But Global Learning has a good track record. Not only did the school rank among the best in New Bedford, but it also scored in the Top 25 percent in the entire state in Grade 10 math — competing well against the best suburban districts. The school also achieved "High Growth" status for Grade 8 in math based on the state's "Growth Model" which measures student academic progress from year-to-year.
Charter public schools have become an important catalyst for change in urban districts. Charter schools are public schools open to everyone, free of charge. They cannot select their students. If there are more students than available seats, they hold public lotteries to determine who will attend. They operate independent of local school districts and are held accountable by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).
Host school districts receive additional aid from the state to compensate for funding that follows a student to a charter public school. Every time there is an increase in the amount of money that is allocated to charters, those dollars are reimbursed by the state for six years at a rate of 100 percent the first year and 25 percent for the next five years.
Charter public schools offer families a choice in public education. They add to New Bedford's quality of life and should be considered a partner in school reform and the city's revitalization. Increasing the number of charter school seats available to New Bedford students should be part of the city's effort to improve public education.