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Boston charter school faces probation

One of Boston’s oldest and largest charter schools is facing possible probation because of declining academic achievement, a rarely ­imposed sanction that could lead to the school’s closing.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to place the Boston Renaissance Charter School on probation, a recommendation pushed by Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

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In a memo to the board, Chester called academic performance at the school of 950 students in preschool through grade 6 “very troubling,” citing MCAS scores that have been slipping for several years.

“The academic performance . . . is certainly not what is expected from a mature charter school,” Chester wrote in the memo dated Feb. 15, which was provided this week to the Globe.

The school must show “substantial improvement” by December 2014, when the state will decide whether to renew its five-year operating license.

In an effort to ensure future success, Chester is requesting that the school hire an outside consultant to evaluate its programs and to ­develop a plan by June 15 to remedy the academic performance.

The recommendation surprised Renaissance, and its leaders are ­divided on whether to fight the recommendation, Roger Harris, the school’s superintendent and chief executive officer, said Thursday.

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But he added, “We believe the commissioner’s intentions are good.”

He vowed that the school would achieve an academic turnaround while acknowledging his fear that probation would tarnish the school’s image and the “hard work and dedication that teachers have put in.”

“I would hate to see them get discouraged because of a label or for people to think we are not ­doing our job,” Harris said. “Our school is much more than MCAS scores and what MCAS scores show.”

Many of Boston’s charter schools are among the best in the country, and the Renaissance School has long endeavored to be one of them.

The school has distinguished itself by offering on-site dental and eye care services and by teaching Mandarin.

In 2010, under state orders to leave its costly midrise building in Park Square and find a facility more suited to young children, it spent $39 million to renovate a complex in Hyde Park.

But its ambitions have repeat­edly been impeded by uneven academic achievement and financial problems; at other times, it has performed well.

Renaissance has faced the possibility of closing before. In 2007, the state placed the school on probation for poor academic performance. It also ordered a reduction in enrollment from 1,240 students to 880 students by 2009 and told it to find a more suitable building for a school than its Park Square midrise.

The move came two years after the state forced the ­Renaissance School to close its middle and high school programs in an effort to shore up its elementary school.

Renaissance moved aggressively to fix its problems, and achievement improved. In ­December 2010, the state board ended the school’s probation.

All the while, though, the Renaissance School was struggling financially as it tried to comply with the state’s mandate to decrease enrollment, a move that also reduces the amount of per-student state aid it receives.

As enrollment dropped from 1,240 students five years ago to 952 students this year, annual aid declined from $14.9 million to about $13.2 million, according to state ­financial reports.

The school has cut more than 50 positions and reduced tutoring programs and math instruction, even after it ­received deadline extensions for reducing its enrollment.

The budget cutting ultimately took a toll on the school’s student achievement, Harris said.

MCAS scores have been sliding since 2009, when 54 percent of students scored ­advanced or proficient in math and 61 percent scored in those two categories in English.

By comparison, only 36 percent of students scored proficient or advanced last spring in math and 53 percent did in English.

Chester acknowledged in his memo that the enrollment reduction has created a “financial burden” and is recommending the board keep enroll­ment at 944 students, the level set for last September.

Harris expressed appreciation for that recommendation, saying it would prevent a million dollars in cuts.

“There is no doubt in my mind that things will improve,” he said.

Many charter schools, which typically operate independently of local districts, have among the highest state standardized test scores. But others have low scores, causing the state to close some.

Currently, only one charter school, Lowell Community, is on probation in the state. After escaping closure in 2010, it is rebounding academically and on Tuesday the state board will decide whether to remove the designation.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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