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Marshall Elementary proposed as charter school

Boston school officials announced Monday that they intend to tap an education-management company to convert the Marshall Elementary School in Dorchester into a charter school next fall, under a proposal to boost student achievement at the academically struggling school.

The announcement marks the second time school officials have turned to the outside firm to transform a traditional public school into an “in-district” charter school. The action will require approval of the Boston School Committee and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary ­Education.

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Under the proposal, the Marshall would be run by ­Unlocking Potential and would have its day increase from six to eight hours. The school would also get a new name, UP Academy Charter School of Dorchester, and would eventually add a middle school program. All students currently enrolled at the Marshall would be able to ­attend, but all staff would have to reapply for jobs.

Unlocking Potential is the same nonprofit Boston contracted with last year to turn around the long-
ailing Gavin Middle School in South Boston, which now goes by the name of UP Academy. In just one year, the Boston company has doubled the proficiency rates on state standardized tests in math among students who had attended the Gavin.

“We are excited” about the proposal, said Matthew Wilder, a School Department spokesman. “Unlocking Potential has had great success at the former Gavin Middle School.”

The Marshall, on Westville Street in a section of Dorchester frequently besieged by violence, is among Boston’s lowest-
performing schools. On last spring’s Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams, only 10 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in English, and just 12 percent attained those levels in math.

About 700 students attend the school, almost all of them black or Latino, and more than three-quarters of all students come from low-income households.

By converting the Marshall into an in-district charter school, Boston and Unlocking Potential will gain considerable flexibility in running the school. In-district charter schools can deviate from central office mandates on curriculum, budgets, and scheduling and also are ­exempt from many workplace rules in the teachers contract, although their teachers still ­belong to the teachers union.

Boston has five in-district charter schools. The proposal will be presented to the School Committee at its meeting Wednesday, and a vote is ­expected Nov. 7. The state ­Education Board could vote on the proposal in February.

Scott Given, chief executive officer of Unlocking Potential, said turning around the ­Marshall will be a challenging opportunity.

“We come into this work with a lot of humility,” Given said. “We know that turning around a school is immensely difficult work, but we believe we have the people and the programs and the willingness to work hard, which will all contribute to doing well at this school.”

Emotions ran high Monday as news of the charter school proposal began circulating around the Marshall. Dozens of staff members turned out for a meeting in the library after school for the formal announcement, and many were upset, said Richard Stutman, the teachers union president, who attended the meeting.

“For some of them, it was like a sudden death in the family, a punch in the stomach, and a sign of disrespect,” said ­Stutman, noting that many teachers have worked there for three decades. “These are people who have given their hearts and souls to the school.”

Few teachers may stay at the school. Unlocking Potential did not rehire anyone from the Gavin, although only a few staff members reapplied. The ­Marshall teachers would be able to apply for jobs at other Boston schools.

Teresa Harvey-Jackson, the Marshall’s principal for nearly two decades, said she likes that the proposal will lengthen the school day and calls for fixing up the building. Already, playgrounds are getting upgrades, and windows with traces of ­asbestos will be replaced, she said. But Harvey-Jackson, who is retiring soon, is worried about her staff and her students, some of whom are learning to speak English or have emotional or behavioral disabilities. She does not want to see current students turned away.

“All I want is someone to hold [Unlocking Potential] account­able for keeping all of the kids there,” Harvey-Jackson said. “The challenges that they are going to have will be a lot, but they have to be willing to do the work.”

She also expressed concerns for the school’s parents through the transition.

Given said his company, which specializes in transforming academically struggling schools, will make a concerted effort to meet with all Marshall families in hope that all students would return to the school next fall. The company retained 85 percent of students at the Gavin after it took it over.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who successfully urged Beacon Hill two years ago to let Boston open at least four in-district charter schools without union approval, said he was excited about the proposal for the ­Marshall.

“Tapping once again into Unlocking Potential’s excellent track record, Up Academy Dorchester will be a dramatically different institution,” Menino said in a statement. “This is an exciting development for the Boston public schools.”

Akilah Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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