School Choice & Charters

Angry Teachers Abandoning Boston’s City on a Hill Charter

By Julie Blair — May 29, 2002 3 min read
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Educators working in Massachusetts’ first accredited charter school are so furious with the implementation of a new governance system that nearly 60 percent of the faculty members plan to quit at the end of the school year. They say they’re convinced that the school’s philosophy of teacher-driven decisionmaking has been corrupted by bureaucrats.

The imminent exodus from the 220-student City on a Hill Charter School in Boston follows the board of trustees’ decision to hire several administrators to manage school business, said Ann Connolly Tolkoff, one of two teachers who started the school and a current board member. The school has grown in size and scope since it opened its doors seven years ago, and now needs full-time managers, she said.

But many of the 26 teachers employed at the school contend that the new administrators have destroyed the stability of the school and ultimately set back student achievement.

“City on a Hill used to be a place where students came to get a good education,” said science teacher Glenn J. Liebeck, who is planning to leave the school at the end of the academic year. “The expectations were extremely high. Now, all that has changed.”

Such reactions have surprised Steven C. Leonard, who serves in the newly created position of school president. He maintains that he came to the school last summer and found a system in chaos. Since then, he said, he has put in place positive changes.

“When I arrived here at City on a Hill, ‘teacher driven’ meant that teachers could do what they as individuals felt was in the best interest of their students,” Mr. Leonard said. Teachers did not look at student data when developing their lessons, failed to communicate with one another about those plans, and were not held accountable for student outcomes, he said.

Growing Pains

City on a Hill initially attracted the attention of the national news media in 1995, when it was touted as Massachusetts’ first school founded, designed, and managed by teachers. Educators were considered the experts in education and played many roles, including curriculum coordinator, guidance counselor, and disciplinarian, Ms. Tolkoff said.

Today, the curriculum still includes a diet of college-preparatory classes, an emphasis on citizenship, and weekly “town meetings,” in which students debate such varied issues as school discipline and immigration. (“Curtain Goes Up on the Life of New School,” Sept. 20, 1995.)

Students are chosen by lottery and come from neighborhoods throughout Boston. Nearly half live in poverty.

The school had to make changes, however, as it grew from a building of 65 students to more than 200 over the past few years, Ms. Tolkoff said. Teachers had numerous responsibilities and little time in which to accomplish their goals. And with plans to expand enrollment, increase fund-raising efforts, and embellish the current teacher-preparation program run by the school, she said, a team of administrators had to be hired to get the work done.

Mr. Leonard said many students who enrolled quit before graduating, state standards were ignored, and the principal was overwhelmed with responsibilities.

To improve the system, the one-time U.S. Marine insisted teachers work together in grade- level teams. He redistributed educators’ workloads and assigned many nonteaching jobs to other administrators. A partnership with Northeastern University was also set up to run the school’s teacher-preparation program.

Teachers, though, said they felt their roles had been debased.

“It feels like a template has been superimposed on the existing structure,” said Al Calderone, a science teacher. “It is top down all the way. In order to understand where they’re coming from, I’ve got to read the newspaper.”

His contract was not renewed for the upcoming school year.

Mr. Leonard dismissed such comments and pointed to gains made by students this year as evidence the new system is working.

For the first time in school history, for example, every single member of the graduating class applied to college and has been accepted, said Principal Paul S. Hays. Moreover, he added, many of the 40-some students are receiving scholarships.

Mr. Calderone, however, said Mr. Leonard is taking credit for work done by educators in the years that predated his arrival.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2002 edition of Education Week as Angry Teachers Abandoning Boston’s City on a Hill Charter

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