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In Charlestown, the seed for a new kind of school — in a city failing too many of its kids

Boston needs innovation schools that will experiment with early college programs and more, whether or not the Charlestown proposal succeeds.

The Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A promising proposal for a new “innovation school” that would replace the struggling Charlestown High faces a key vote this week.

A screening committee composed of Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, Boston School Committee chairwoman Jeri Robinson, and Boston Teachers Union vice president Erik Berg will decide whether to move the proposal to the next stage — or spike it.

The odds of advancement appear long.

Several Charlestown High teachers have registered sharp opposition to the proposal, saying the parents at a nearby K-8 school who pitched the idea didn’t consult with the Charlestown High community; one called the proposed overhaul a “hostile takeover.”


And proponents’ relations with the superintendent don’t seem much better. They claim her office denied them access to staff and families at Charlestown High as they drafted the proposal — a charge the district has denied. There is also broad concern about moving ahead with an ambitious overhaul in the midst of a pandemic that has stretched district resources thin.

But even if the Charlestown Innovation and Inclusive High School plan dies, some of the ideas at its heart — especially a push for a robust early college program — should live on.

Because Lord knows, the city needs good ideas.

A 2018 report prepared by Ernst & Young found that nearly 1 in 5 students in the city’s public high schools was two or more years behind in school. Various attempts at reform — from launching small schools to turning around big ones — have floundered in recent decades. The superintendent’s own high school reform initiative has faced sharp criticism from school leaders and has been slowed by the pandemic.

And in the meantime, the debate over public education in Boston has fixated on admissions policies at the city’s three high-flying exam schools — Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science — diverting attention from where it’s needed most.


The Charlestown proposal is a welcome attempt to put the focus in the right place.

Charlestown High ranks in the bottom 10 percent of high schools statewide. And the other open-enrollment high schools in the city are struggling to hit key metrics on student achievement and graduation too. Proponents of the new innovation school say it could provide a blueprint for high school reform citywide.

The proposal draws on a 2010 education reform law that allows for in-district schools with greater flexibility on spending, staffing, school schedules, and curriculum. Boston has taken some advantage of the law over the last decade; 10 of its 121 schools are innovation schools. But it should lean into the model even more as it seeks answers for its high schools.

Autonomy alone doesn’t make a school great. But it does provide leeway for experimentation in a city that desperately needs it. Among the experiments the Charlestown Innovation and Inclusive High School would pursue: an extended school day and a requirement that students obtain a professional certificate or an associate’s degree before graduation.

That requirement speaks to the most compelling piece of the proposal: a comprehensive early college program.

Early college is just what it sounds like — high school students taking college-level courses, preferably on college campuses. Sitting in a lecture hall and navigating a syllabus can build confidence in would-be first-generation college students. And racking up credits — or even a full associate’s degree — can dramatically cut the cost of higher education.


Here in Massachusetts, where early college is just getting off the ground, the preliminary returns are promising. Seventy-six percent of early college students in the Class of 2019 enrolled in college within six months of graduation, compared with 56 percent of students from similar backgrounds. That’s a 20 percentage-point jump. And early college students have been much more likely to stay in college than their peers during the pandemic.

There is an important equity strain running through the program, too. Two-thirds of participants are Black and Latino.

Early college has been strongest in smaller cities like Lawrence. Boston has made a start but is lagging behind. District leadership needs to make it more of a priority; proven ideas for lifting up underserved communities are a precious commodity in urban education.

Let the Charlestown Innovation and Inclusive High School proposal be a spark.

The “inclusive” part of the name refers to another valuable idea: offering better support for students with disabilities. The pitch calls for a co-teacher model, with a general education teacher and a special education teacher working side by side.

Proponents say that if 25 percent of the student body had disabilities, the ratio would be right for effective co-teaching and Charlestown Innovation would get enough money to fund it; schools receive more per-pupil funding for special-education students. Critics note that the existing Charlestown High has a larger share of students with disabilities — 31.5 percent, according to state data. And they worry that, if the new school held to its declared 25 percent target, the supposedly “inclusive” institution could actually exclude.


One of the parents who wrote the proposal, Ross Wilson, a former deputy superintendent in Boston Public Schools who now serves as executive director of the Shah Family Foundation, says the school could keep its disabled population at 25 percent only if other city high schools with relatively few special education students educated more of them; at present, open enrollment schools tend to serve a larger share of students who are disabled. Absent that kind of districtwide change, he says, the school could — and should — educate as many disabled students who come its way.

He also signals flexibility on another controversial element of the plan for the school, which would run from grades 7 to 12, like the current Charlestown High. As written, the prospectus gives students from three nearby schools — the Eliot in the North End, and the Warren Prescott and Harvard-Kent schools in Charlestown — preference in admissions in the seventh and eighth grade.

Those schools have whiter student populations than the district as a whole — the Eliot and Warren Prescott are about four times whiter, while Harvard-Kent is slightly whiter — raising equity concerns. But Wilson says the parents behind the proposal would be willing to shift to a citywide admissions policy for all grades.


It may be too late for these kinds of overtures. But the conversation about how, exactly, to shape a new kind of high school in Boston is worthwhile.

Hopefully, it will help shape other similar high school proposals, because the city certainly needs them.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.