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Pioneering Renaissance School must explain recent woes

ON MONDAY, the pioneering Boston Renaissance Charter School faces the likelihood of being placed on probation by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. It’s a serious step for an institution that has been consistently ambitious since its founding in 1995 but erratic in its academic performance. Strict accountability must be part of the charter-school experiment in Massachusetts, and the state board must determine the cause of Renaissance’s recent troubles. Even so, there are enough mitigating factors that putting the school on the path to being shuttered seems premature.

The state clearly has grounds for concern. Achievement at the K-6 school has slipped considerably since 2009, when 54 percent of students scored advanced or proficient on the math MCAS exam. Last spring, that figure fell to 36 percent. Much is expected of schools that are allowed to operate free of union work rules and central administration interference. Still more is expected of a school that has the advantages of 18 years of operating experience, a charismatic CEO, a new facility, and fruitful partnerships with medical and social service providers.

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Still, any assessment of Renaissance must also make sense in the wider context of evaluating the quality of all schools. Renaissance still ranks in the top half of all Boston charter and district schools on the grade 3 English and math MCAS tests. It ranks even higher in grades 4, 5, and 6. In almost every grade, the school’s Hispanic and black children outperform their counterparts elsewhere in Boston and across the state.

State education officials and the school have wrestled over enrollment figures for several years. Renaissance CEO Roger Harris said that mandated cuts in enrollment led to the loss of more than 50 staffers over the last few years and the subsequent drop in MCAS scores. Math instruction suffered disproportionately at the 950-student school.

Still, advocates of charter schools and other educational reforms are rightly wary of complicated, bureaucratic explanations for disappointing performance at conventional district schools, and at Monday’s hearing the onus will be on Renaissance to explain what went wrong and how it will elevate its MCAS scores.

Renaissance has ranked at or near the top in its willingness to share successful strategies with district schools over the years. It adds a lot of value to the lives of its mostly low-income students through free piano lessons, classes in Mandarin Chinese, and on-site dental and vision care. More than a quick slap across the wrist, the school deserves a careful hearing from the board. And if the school can make its case, probation would be overkill.

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