Dorchester Collegiate charter school faces closure

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BOSTON – In an emotionally charged gymnasium filled with parents and bureaucrats, the state’s education board voted narrowly on Tuesday to revoke the charter of Dorchester Collegiate Academy Charter School.

It appeared Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester’s recommendation might deadlock before the board until member Michael Moriarty raised his hand to tip the balance in a 6 to 4 decision. He told the News Service he made up his mind how to vote when the vote was called.

“Y’all are crazy,” yelled parent Aisha Barnes, who stormed out of the room sobbing after the vote. Barnes said she doesn’t know what she will do for her daughter, who she said had trouble in school before enrolling in the charter.

Headmaster Bob Flynn said the school specializes in providing counseling to its students in grades 4 through 8. Chester said the school has been beset by lackluster academics and attrition.

“Closing a school’s not an easy thing,” Chester told reporters after the decision. He said, “This is a school that has been open for seven years, has had chronic low-performance, has struggled with performance … has had one of the highest levels of attrition not just among charter schools but among traditional schools in Boston.”

Board members Katherine Craven, Education Secretary James Peyser, Chairman Paul Sagan, Suffolk University President Margaret McKenna and student representative Donald Willyard preceded Moriarty in raising their hands for revocation of the charter.

The charter will have a 15-day window to appeal the decision, which would trigger review by a hearing officer who would report to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, according to Chester. If the school appeals, the board would then need to take another vote on the matter to revoke the charter, Chester said.

“I envisioned a school that would be worse-off rather than better off next year,” Moriarty told the News Service about his vote. Asked whether his stance might change if the charter appeals, Moriarty said he always approaches a vote with an “open mind.”

Barnes was among several parents who spoke at the meeting held at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center about the benefits of Dorchester Collegiate Academy before the vote to revoke the charter.

“I put my daughter in DCA because of their belief in the kids and working with them socially and emotionally,” Barnes told reporters after the vote. She said, “I don’t know what the option for her is right now.”

Barnes described the challenges her daughter faced before enrolling in the charter in the fourth grade.

“She was bullied. She was basically tortured at times, and from the staff at the school she was made to be as if she was being disrespectful because of her lack of participation,” Barnes said, describing her daughter as shy and a beneficiary of Dorchester Collegiate Academy’s counseling. She said, “She is doing phenomenal.”

Flynn said the Dorchester Collegiate Academy is among the 34 percent of charters rated as Level Two – a step down from the best-performing schools at Level One.

“No other Level Two charter school has been recommended for closure and no other Level Three school has been recommended for closure” Flynn told the board. He said, “I do understand that there is a great demand for charter school seats in Boston. What I am asking is that DCA not be evaluated through a stricter lens as a result of this demand.”

“You’re in Level Three if you’re in the bottom 20 percent of schools in the Commonwealth, so it’s a sort of very hard and fast cutoff. They’ve been essentially at or above that level marginally for most of their existence. They’re currently at the 23rd percentile, so technically they’re not in Level Three,” Peyser told reporters. He said, “Serving high-need students does not mean lowering our expectations for their outcomes and their achievement.”

Flanked by the charter’s board chairman, Robert Gaudet, and vice chairman, Charles Cassidy, Flynn said he would be willing to step aside to save the school.

“If this keeps DCA open, I very happily would step aside and be a very active and supportive member of the transition,” Flynn told the board.

McKenna said the school failed to make the case that its population warranted a different perspective on its academic results.

“That was their argument, was that the reason that the achievement was not as robust as it should be was that the population was significantly different than the [Boston Public Schools] population in general, but the numbers showed that it was not different,” McKenna said.

The school has 238 seats and an enrollment of 203 as of last October with 437 students on the waitlist, according to Chester’s evaluation.

Peyser said charters are held to high standards and said there is “risk in any innovation.”

“Part of the design of charter schools is they don’t all succeed,” Peyser said. Calling them a “challenge” and “not for the faint of heart,” Peyser said, “They’re certainly not about mediocre or just kind of OK results.”

As members of the Senate attempt to potentially rework the state’s charter school laws, a citizens’ initiative appears headed for the November ballot, where passage could expand the amount of charter schools allowed in Massachusetts.

Before moving to revoke the charter, the education board unanimously voted to take over the entire school system in Southbridge, putting it into receivership and citing chronic underperformance.

The Dorchester charter showed “lackluster academic success” and failed to meet conditions imposed on it when it was placed on probation in 2014, according to Chester’s recommendation.

“While the school claims to serve a population of students with substantially greater social and emotional needs than is typical, there is no data to support this assertion,” Chester wrote in a Jan. 15 memo to the board. “Although serving students with special needs is central to the school’s mission, the school has failed to maintain a consistent staff with expertise in serving special needs students.”

Bonnie McGilpin, a spokeswoman for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, said City Hall has been monitoring the process, but she did not stake a position on whether the charter should have been revoked. Chester said he has “no idea” what the city’s position was on the revocation issue.

Registration to participate in this spring’s school assignment lotteries for kindergarten, sixth and ninth grade is scheduled to end Friday but may be extended if needed, according to a Boston Public Schools spokesman.

“There will be a meeting with parents tomorrow,” Chester told reporters. He said Boston school district representatives would attend along with representatives from charter schools.

Written by Matt Murphy