Risk-Taking Parents Embrace Vision for City on a Hill in Boston

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When parents here first heard about City on a Hill, a new public charter school, it had no building and it had no staff.

What it did have were two founders with a vision: Ann Connolly Tolkoff, a veteran English teacher in Chelsea, Mass., and Sarah Kass, who also taught English in Chelsea and who had dreamed of starting her own school from the time she was a teenager.

Their vivid description of a school that would teach students about democracy, citizenship, and public service--and hold them accountable to high academic standards--was what persuaded hundreds of parents to take a risk and try to land one of the school's 65 slots for their children.

"We had looked at everything under the sun," recalled Linda Horan, who works at Adams, Harkness, and Hill, a Boston-based brokerage house. She and her son, Sean Donovan, spent the summer of 1994 checking out some 35 public, private, and parochial schools.

Hearing Ms. Tolkoff speak at an open house at Sean's middle school sparked her interest.

"For myself, it was like, what is the worst thing that can happen, that my son would have the benefit of a smaller classroom setting [the maximum class size is 18 students] and maybe not learn" any more than he would in another Boston school? she wondered.

She admits that she liked the school so much that she did not tell any of her friends about it until after her son had won a slot in the student lottery. "We coveted the school," she laughed. "We did not want the competition" from others seeking to get in.

City on a Hill looked promising enough to Michelle Andrews that she decided to pull her daughter, Marisa Branch, out of a private school to attend her first public school in Boston.

No Track Record

At the time, Marisa was enrolled on a scholarship at Noble and Greenough, a $14,000-a-year private school in Dedham, Mass. Earlier, Marisa had attended a public school in Newton, Mass., under a desegregation program that allows minority students in Boston to attend suburban schools.

But Ms. Andrews had become concerned that her daughter's private school was not racially diverse enough. At City on a Hill, there would be more minority students.

Ms. Andrews also liked the fact that it was a public school--but not a part of the Boston system. While it's true that City on a Hill had no history, at least it didn't have a bad track record.

"If it were a regular Boston public school, governed by the school committee, she would not have come here," Ms. Andrews declared firmly. "The [district's] reputation stinks, basically. There are some kids who come [to the Boston public schools] and do well, but most do not."

Mack Knight Jr., an engineer at NYNEX whose son Mack III attends City on a Hill, agreed. "The standards are higher. They really expect all of the students to go on to college. It seems like their goal in the Boston public schools is just to get the students through high school."

The Right Decision

A year later, he and other parents say they made the right decision.

"I am so happy my son got into this school," Hoang Lu, the mother of Tien Huynh, said. "The students like to come to school every day."

Despite all the pluses, the parents do acknowledge that they have some lingering concerns.

For instance, one parent noted, because a nurse only comes to the school one day a week, even the smallest medical emergency can mean sending a student to a hospital emergency room. Some also worry about the fact that the school doesn't have a full-time guidance counselor.

All in all, though, Ms. Horan, who serves as the parent representative on the school's board of trustees, thinks it's been a good year. "There was quite a bit for the kids on their plates in terms of expectations, and a lot of them were not prepared for the rigors of a real high school," she said.

"But the school has been very accommodating," she added. "The folks here give their heart and soul all of the time."

Vol. 15, Issue 40, Pages 15-16

Published in Print: July 10, 1996, as Risk-Taking Parents Embrace Vision for City on a Hill in Boston
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