Innovations in Education: Successful Charter Schools
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Roxbury Preparatory Charter School

Location Boston, Mass.
Year First Chartered and Authorizer 1999
Grades 6-8
Enrollment 180
English Learners 0%
Subsidized Meals 56%
Special Needs 7%
Per Pupil Spending $12,910

This urban middle school was founded in order to prepare its African American and Hispanic students to enter, succeed in, and graduate from college. Located in Boston's tough Roxbury neighborhood, this charter school is filling a gap in local students' education choices. Unlike any other middle school in this impoverished community, Roxbury Preparatory Charter School (RPC) features an academic program designed specifically to prepare students for college.

The philosophy driving Roxbury Prep is that when curriculum is engaging and rigorous, when student character and community responsibility are emphasized, and when the community network supports student academic, social, and physical well-being, all students can succeed in college preparatory programs, even the 66 percent of the school's incoming students who are reading one or more grade levels below the norm.

The key to Roxbury Prep's success in bridging the achievement gap is its relentless and systematic focus on academic achievement. There is an urgency in the school, an understanding that this is a life-changing opportunity for students.

The school was started in 1999 by a team of educators-John King; Evan Rudall; Roger Harris, then principal of the James P. Timilty School; and Keith Motley, the vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of Massachusetts, Boston-who recognized that Roxbury did not have any public schools dedicated to a college preparatory program. With a charter from the state of Massachusetts, they originally intended to create a school for grades 6-12. Amid the challenges of start-up, however, they realized that managing such a comprehensive facility and providing all the options that come with a high school program, such as sports, was beyond their means. The board of trustees and administrators decided that, rather than launch the high school program, they preferred to focus on developing an outstanding college preparatory middle school for students in grades 6-8. As John King says, "It was better to focus on doing middle school well."

Roxbury Prep has 180 students: 72 sixth-graders, 58 seventh-graders and 50 eighth-graders this year. Eighty percent of the students are African American and 20 percent are Hispanic. Female students outnumber male students by 56 to 44 percent. Three-quarters of the students come from the Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan.

Program and Operations

Roxbury Prep has developed many schoolwide structures to create a common culture and work ethic for students. The academic day runs from 7:45 to 3:15, followed by mandatory enrichment classes, after-school clubs, and a homework center. Each day begins with breakfast in advisory groups and 25 minutes of Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) time. Students take six academic classes of 50 minutes each plus physical education and computers twice a week. Each day students have two periods of mathematics and two periods of reading/language arts; the extra emphasis helps students make up ground as needed and get ahead in these basics.

Fridays are structured differently, to allow for 1:30 p.m. dismissal so that teachers can meet for professional development. Saturdays find the school open and as many as half the school's 20 teachers and 20 to 30 students on hand.

Classroom practices promote continuity from one class to the next. For example, each day teachers outline on the blackboard a specific, measurable "Aim" for the day, a "Do Now" activity, and homework. When students enter any classroom at Roxbury Prep, they move quickly to their assigned seats and begin working silently on the "Do Now" activity, a five-minute warm-up that gets them settled and immediately focused on school work.

Each day students have two periods of mathematics and two periods of reading/language arts.

In a math procedures classroom, the "Mad Minute" routine is used to check basic math facts, helping students to develop speed and accuracy. The 24 sixth-graders are serious and focused on the work at hand. The teacher does not want students having side conversations with their neighbors, instructing them, "You have a question? You ask me." The class is fast paced, highly structured, and the tone disciplined.

Classes do not use textbooks, except for reference. The teachers draw from a curriculum prepared by staff during the previous summer and aligned both to state and Roxbury Prep standards. This curriculum, in turn, is refined using the plans developed in previous years.

In addition to a focus on basics, the school offers many enrichment classes, including Spanish, art, sports, choir, drama, computers, mock trial, and yearbook. Clubs include a history movie club, a science club, peer tutoring, music, and the student newspaper.

Character development is also an explicit part of the Roxbury Prep experience. It is woven into the daily interactions in the classrooms. As one teacher says, "Students are developing a sense of respect, how you speak to someone, how to ask a question for help. It is part of the daily learning." Friday advisory meetings have a specific character development focus at each grade: the sixth grade focuses on responsibility and time management, the focus at seventh grade is community and non-violence, and eighth-graders address leadership and community. Additionally, every eighth-grader is paired with a sixth-grade buddy, usually a student who rides the same bus, to help create a supportive sense of community across grades. Schoolwide community meetings are another opportunity to reinforce school values. The entire school comes together to share what they are learning in their classes, see performances by enrichment classes or clubs, and celebrate student academic achievement.

To ensure a safe, structured, and focused learning environment, Roxbury enforces a strict code of conduct and discipline. All students wear blue shirts, navy pants or khakis, and brown or black shoes and belts. Boys wear ties. Students not in compliance are not allowed to attend class and parents are asked to pick them up or bring them appropriate clothing. Students are required to be in line and silent in the halls when passing from one class to the next. In class they are expected to be focused and on task. Students are polite when they ask questions, raising their hands and using a respectful tone.

Students may be given demerits for conduct violations such as tardiness, school bus misbehavior, chewing gum, talking in the hallways, disrupting class, arriving unprepared, not completing homework on time, or disrespectful behavior. Three demerits lead to after-school detentions, and multiple demerits result in extended detentions on Friday afternoon or Saturday morning. Any student who is struggling academically may be pulled out of enrichment or physical education classes for tutoring. Students may also be required to attend after-school tutoring, homework center, Saturday school, and summer school to improve their academic performance.

Continuous Learning

Multiple assessments guide Roxbury's curriculum and instruction. Comprehensive exams based on the school curriculum guide ongoing adjustments to meet student learning needs. Students all take a benchmark comprehensive exam at the beginning of the year. Comprehensive exams at the end of each trimester indicate fine-grained academic progress aligned with the RPC standards, state standards, and Stanford 9 standards, when relevant. Teachers create extensive spreadsheets to show each standard and knowledge area tested and how each student performed on each question. Analyzing these results helps teachers see which students need additional support in specific areas. Students receive progress reports monthly and report cards each trimester. Students take the Stanford 9 at the midyear and at the end of the school year to monitor academic progress.

Each Friday, teachers engage in an afternoon of professional development. They devote one hour to grade-level team meetings, one hour to inquiry groups, and a half hour for a staff meeting. By collaborating to address challenges that arise, teachers solidify their teams and delve deeply into pedagogy, problem solving, and teaching issues. During inquiry group meetings, teachers share their efforts and analyze student work in order to focus their instruction. For example, one team of teachers saw the need to focus on the use of evidence in writing. They developed a shared vocabulary, rubrics, and a teaching system across classes so that when students were writing paragraphs in one class, they would know to draw on strategies they were learning in their other classes.

During the summer, staff are paid an additional stipend to devote three weeks to planning and preparing curriculum for the school year. They develop Curriculum Alignment Templates (CATs) that align with Roxbury Prep standards, the Massachusetts standards, clear and measurable benchmarks, learning activities, and assessment for each unit. A school curriculum file is maintained in binders and electronically, and teachers are required to save all CATs, syllabi, assessments, and course materials in hard copy and on the server. The process is valuable for developing shared knowledge among the staff and passing it on to new teachers, who can review the CATs for the courses they are teaching and build on those lesson plans and curriculum units.

Parents can expect to hear from their child's teacher adviser at least once every two weeks.

Parents and Partners

The school brings families into the school culture with an orientation that presents the ways that Roxbury Prep is different from traditional public schools. Families and students sign the Family and School Contract at the beginning of the year, agreeing to make the school a safe and orderly environment and to ensure that students arrive at school and class on time, with homework completed. Parents also agree to participate in school activities, to communicate regularly with the teachers, and to follow the guidelines of the school.

When the school first started, the codirectors believed that all families needed to carry the responsibility for making sure that students completed their homework, but as it became clear that some students did not have a quiet place to study or needed additional support while working on homework, the school added more support systems. With students having two or three hours of homework every night, there is now a homework center, where teachers can provide academic help and students have a quiet space to complete their assignments. The homework center can be mandatory for students who are not completing their work or are falling behind and receiving poor grades.

Teachers work hard to keep communication lines open with families. Classroom teachers send home weekly syllabi for parents' information and signature, and parents are asked to check homework assignments nightly. Regular parent-teacher conferences keep parents informed about their child's academic progress. In addition, parents can expect to hear from their child's teacher adviser at least once every two weeks. Teachers each serve as advisers for 12 students. They know these students well, spending breakfast and lunch with them,the morning DEAR time, and the Friday character development advisories. Parents appreciate the Roxbury teachers' commitment. "They come early and stay late," says one. Another parent reports what a pleasure it is that when teachers call, it is not always bad news. She also notes that her daughter can call her teachers until 8:00 at night if she has a question.

All Roxbury Prep graduates have gone on to high schools with college preparatory missions.

The Family Involvement Committee organizes potluck dinners and ongoing ways for families to be involved with the school program. Two parent representatives are on the school's board of trustees and serve on board committees.

In addition to several small community partnerships, Roxbury Prep benefits from donors who provide the school with about $350,000 annually in grant funding.

Governance and Accountability

Roxbury Prep operates on an annual budget of about $2,350,000. The school receives state-funded tuition of about $9,500 per student and other state and federal monies for programs such as Title I and special education, but the average cost to educate a student is estimated at $13,000 per year. The difference represents a healthy amount, and members of the board of trustees are valued in part for their ability to help the school raise funds. Of the 12 board members, 10 are Boston-area community members and two are parents.

The school has two codirectors. John King oversees curriculum and development and teacher observation and evaluation, and Josh Phillips is in charge of facilities, operations, and fundraising. But as they explain in unison, "We make the major decisions together."

Roxbury's charter was renewed in February 2004. Among the state's predominantly African American schools, Roxbury Prep students in 2002-03 had the highest average scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests in sixth-grade math, eighth-grade math, and eighth-grade science, and the second-highest average score on the seventh-grade English test. Students averaged over 2.5 grade levels of progress on the Stanford 9. Of course, the most important measure of success to the school's families and staff is students' ability to continue on a path toward college. All Roxbury Prep graduates have gone on to high schools with college preparatory missions, and the school's recent graduating class earned over $400,000 in scholarships and financial aid toward tuition in private high schools.

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Last Modified: 06/23/2009