From Charters to Pilots, Boston Offers a Variety of Small-School Options

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When small, nontraditional schools in Boston ponder whether to operate inside or outside the 63,000-student district, the range of choices can make a teacher's head swim.

Is it best to be a pilot school? A commonwealth charter school? A Horace Mann school? How about a school-within-a-school?

"It becomes interesting to know where the lines are anymore," observed John Cawthorne, the assistant dean for students and outreach at Boston College's school of education.

As those lines continue to shift, educators in Boston face unprecedented choices and unparalleled uncertainty. As a result, the city offers an intriguing glimpse of how the urban small-schools tradition is interacting with the charter school movement to create new ideas about how public schools can be run.

Things began getting complicated five years ago, when Massachusetts lawmakers authorized the state's first charter schools, with the state as the chartering agency. Like those in other states, the charter schools are independent of local districts, exempt from many state regulations, and free of the need to hire unionized or state-certified staff members.

In response to the law, Boston school leaders and the city teachers' union agreed the following year to allow a modified version of charter-like schools. Known as pilot schools, they are governed by the city school board and must use unionized teachers.

Then, last spring, the legislature created a third option--Horace Mann charter schools, named for the renowned 19th-century education reformer who became Massachusetts' first education secretary in 1837.

'Can of Worms'

Unlike the original "commonwealth" charters, Horace Mann schools must win approval from their districts and teachers' unions as well as the state. Teachers remain under union contracts, and funding comes through their districts rather than directly from the state.

But once their five-year charters are granted, Horace Mann schools report to their own boards of trustees instead of local school officials and thus have more autonomy than pilot schools.

The distinctions among the options are not always well understood and are sometimes hotly debated. "It's turned into a real can of worms," said Gretchen O'Neill, a spokeswoman for the Boston schools.

Among those closest to the issue are educators in several pilot schools that have either considered converting to charter status or plan to do so. Those include Boston Evening Academy and the Health Careers Academy, pilot schools with about 150 students each that were among the first four schools statewide granted Horace Mann status. The schools' operators say they need more fiscal and administrative autonomy than they got as pilot schools.

The stability offered by a five-year charter was another consideration, said Ferdinand Fuentes, the director of the Boston Evening Academy.

"I couldn't afford to be wondering every year if they were going to close our school," Mr. Fuentes said of district officials.

Flirting With a Charter

A pilot school that unsuccessfully sought Horace Mann status this year was Fenway Middle College High School, a 250-student alternative school that has been through several incarnations since its birth 15 years ago.

In 1994, Fenway almost became one of the state's first charter schools. But shortly after winning its charter, the school's directors decided instead to become a pilot school.

Linda Nathan, the school's co-director, said the conservative political agenda of charter school supporters in Massachusetts helped sour the school on keeping its charter.

Greater Impact?

Under pilot status, Ms. Nathan said, the school has been frustrated by the pace of reform within the district, prompting it to pursue the Horace Mann route. Yet the school also wanted to maintain its administrative ties to the system and other pilot schools, a factor that loomed large in the state's denial of its Horace Mann application.

Some advocates of pilot schools in Boston believe that by remaining within the system they are affecting district policy--on everything from accountability to budgeting--in ways that charter schools cannot.

That role may become more important as the district moves forward with a plan to break up its high schools into smaller units.

Yet some pilot school leaders say educators should pay better attention to all kinds of innovative schools, even if they are perceived to be diverting resources from the regular public system.

"I'm not sure we don't create barriers to learning from each other," said Deborah W. Meier, who gained renown for her 20-year leadership of the experimental Central Park East Secondary School in New York City before opening the Mission Hill pilot school in Boston last fall. "A mixture of different kinds of public institutions might be very healthy."

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