One School's Journey in the Age of Reform

Article excerpt

The Massachusetts charter movement helped create the impetus for Boston to develop pilot schools (in-district charters) - and that posed a dilemma for the staff members, students, parents, board members, and co-directors of Boston's Fenway Middle College High School, as Mr. Myatt and Ms. Nathan relate here.

In September 1994 our small Boston school - staff members, students, parents, board members, and the two of us - found itself confronting a difficult decision, one that would affect our immediate identity and our future course. After a decade of positive growth and increasing recognition, too often accompanied by chafing and struggles within our system, we at Fenway Middle College High School had finally opted to become part of the charter school movement, and our application had been accepted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It was at this point that another attractive option unexpectedly became available to us.

Founded in 1983 as a school-within-a-school, Fenway had lived through a decade of reform and restructuring efforts, changing homes and identities but keeping its dual mission central. Our school had been founded, first, to be a home to students representing a true cross section of the city's young people - many of them demoralized and defeated by their school experiences - and, second, to question anything and everything in the process of building a school of excellence around those same students. Having spent our early years within the intense atmosphere of restructuring at Boston's English High School in the mid-Eighties, we had spun off to become Boston's first member of the national Middle College Consortium and an early member of Theodore Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools.

Our journey had often been one of exploring new roads, overcoming obstacles, and finding new solutions. We saw the charter school movement as our answer to the four kinds of autonomy we had always coveted - the power to create our own budget, based on teaching, learning, and counseling needs; the freedom to teach our own curriculum and to grant diplomas by portfolio and exhibition; the ability to hire the best teachers, regardless of union and central office restrictions; and the unhindered pursuit of a new brand of intimate, supportive governance to be provided by our own board, independent of a rigid bureaucracy and a political school committee. After years of having to defend our course titles, interdisciplinary instruction, hybrid job descriptions, and, often, our mission itself, we began to accept the need to leave behind the main positive features of being part of the traditional school system - services from the city, such as payroll and health insurance; school department purchasing power for indemnification policies or copier paper; and many long-standing personal and professional relationships - in exchange for getting to "hold our own conversation," as Sizer puts it.

As we struggled to keep the "old" Fenway going, we began making long-range plans for our new charter school, including preparing for faculty interviews, developing a first-rate business plan, designing our new school structures and systems, and broadening our alliances. Our Coalition experience had taught us the power of networking, and we knew that we would need to become central players in creating a new network among charter educators and supporters. Our board members and school-to-career collaborators were supportive of us, as were such longtime friends as Sizer, Vito Perrone, Deborah Meier, and others.

Then, in a springtime moment of enlightenment and opportunism, a host of former antagonists coalesced. The school committee (appointed by the mayor of Boston), the teacher union, and a besieged superintendent all agreed that Boston, too, should have its own progressive initiative. Six in-district charters, to be known as "pilot schools," would be granted, with some promise of more to come in future years. Even though it provided no real funding or any details or direction for central office implementers, the initiative was passed, and this cast of strange bedfellows announced a request for proposals for pilot schools. …