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Dorchester charter school faces probation

Less than five years after Dorchester Collegiate Academy Charter School opened its doors, it is facing possible probation for low MCAS scores and inadequate financial oversight, a rare recommendation by state education officials that could lead to the school’s closing.

If the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approves the recommendation at its monthly meeting Tuesday, Dorchester Collegiate would emerge as the second Boston charter school on probation. The other is Boston Renaissance in Hyde Park, one of the oldest and largest charter schools in the city.

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The timing is challenging for Dorchester Collegiate, which serves about 200 students in grades 4 through 8, as its five-year operating license with the state expires in June. But Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, has decided to recommend renewal of the license, albeit with the probationary status attached.

“I am not recommending nonrenewal at this time, because the school is already making efforts to address these deficiencies,” Chester said in a memo to the board, posted on the agency’s website this week.

The school will have until Sept. 30, 2015, to improve MCAS scores, which during the past two years have declined sharply, or it could face closure.

Dorchester Collegiate also must complete other tasks, such as submitting monthly financial statements and overhauling its English and math programs.

Robert Flynn, the school’s headmaster, said in a statement that the school has already started overhauling academic programs, including changing instructional practices and hiring additional teachers and specialists. The school also added six new members to its board of trustees, which elected a new chair.

“While we are disappointed with the commissioner’s recommendation, we look forward to Dorchester Collegiate Academy Charter School becoming the high-performing school envisioned in the charter,” Flynn said.

The recommendation comes as charter school advocates are lobbying the Legislature to allow more of these independently run public schools to open in Boston and other cities, which have reached a state limit on the number that can operate.

Closing Dorchester Collegiate could provide an opportunity for another charter school to open without having to raise the state cap.

Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said he doubted that having two charter schools in Boston on probation would hinder the chances of raising the state cap. Some studies, including one by Stanford University, he said, found Boston charter schools are among the best.

“There are thousands of students looking for high-quality alternatives to the district,” said Kenen, referring to the Boston school system. “It is imperative for the state to lift the cap to provide these opportunities.”

He also voiced confidence that Dorchester Collegiate would move out of probation. Renaissance charter school, placed on probation last year, subsequently boosted its MCAS scores. The state will decide that school’s fate later this year.

But Richard Stutman — president of the Boston Teachers Union, which has been critical of charter schools — urged caution. “Lawmakers ought to be wary and very careful before giving the go-ahead on charter expansion, given their mixed records,” he said.

Created under the 1993 Education Reform Act, charter schools usually operate independently of local school systems and are supposed to provide an innovative alternative to traditional public schools.

Although many charter schools score high on MCAS tests, a few have closed because of low state test scores, financial problems, or other issues. Aside from the two Boston charter schools, the state board placed Global Learning Charter School in New Bedford on probation last month, primarily because of declining student achievement.

Dorchester Collegiate opened in 2009 with a lofty goal: It strives to offer a college-preparatory education for students who have a history of chronic absenteeism, disciplinary issues, or poor academic performance.

MCAS results have been disappointing at the school, though. Last spring, just 35 percent of students scored proficient or higher in English and 29 percent in math, down from 46 percent and 34 percent, respectively, the previous year.

And three years into its venture, Dorchester Collegiate dropped plans to add a high school because of “significant and unanticipated costs in overhead and supports,” according to a recent state review of the school.

Also, independent auditors made a finding of “significant deficiency” after reviewing the school’s finances for fiscal 2013, because the school lacked proper controls to reconcile finances, causing the auditors to make “numerous general ledger adjustments,” the state review said.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.
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