A charter success story, dreaming of a sequel
First of four stories on how families could be affected by charter school expansion. For other entries in the series, click here.
Alorah Miles likes math the best.
In math, each lesson stacks on top of the last one like blocks, the 9-year-old explained. You can’t learn to multiply if you don’t know how to add. And if you don’t learn what you should in fourth grade, you won’t be ready for fifth.
Readiness for fifth grade and everything that follows is one of the reasons Alorah’s mother, Janelle Smith, has tried year after year to get the fourth-grader into a charter school like the one Smith, 30, attended as a teenager.
Instead, like thousands of children in Boston and beyond, Alorah has been mired on the long waiting lists that are one clear consequence of the state’s restrictions on new charter schools.
The campaign around Question 2 on the statewide ballot this fall, which would lift the cap on new charter schools, has drawn millions in spending and sparked a war of words between teachers unions and the schools’ corporate backers. The unions say that the charters siphon away money from traditional schools, making them weaker, while charter school supporters argue that students — particularly low-income students in underperforming schools — benefit from the options charter schools provide.
But at the heart of the debate are Massachusetts parents and families who, regardless of where they stand on the question, want a better education for their children.
In Smith’s view, lifting the cap would allow more children access to schools like the highly regarded Brooke schools where Alorah is on the waiting list — or MATCH charter school, where Smith was part of the first graduating class more than a decade ago.
A rigorous high school education at MATCH prepared Smith for college and for a lifetime of rewarding work. But transitioning into high school was a challenge, and Smith recalled that her own middle school education at John W. McCormack school in Dorchester had her working twice as hard just to catch up.
“It’s hard adapting . . . to something being so structured,” said Smith, who watched the 78 students who started 9th grade with her dwindle to 27 by graduation — sad evidence, Smith said, of how few classmates were properly prepared for a challenging high school. “People were dropping like flies.”
MATCH, now a K-12 school, has changed in the decade since; a spokeswoman said high school attrition rates last year were down to 5.7 percent.
Smith hoped enrolling Alorah early in a charter school with a longer day and an intense focus on academics might help shorten that learning curve when Alorah gets to high school or college. But demand for such schools is high. According to the most recent state statistics, more than 30,000 students are on waiting lists around the state.
Alorah is fairly deep on the waiting lists for Brooke schools in Mattapan and Roslindale, her mother said. For now, she is a fourth-grader at John D. Philbrick Elementary School in Roslindale.
There is a lot to like about Philbrick, one of Boston’s smallest schools. Parents at the school are tight-knit, Smith said, and the school is racially and economically diverse. By the standards of Boston Public Schools, academic performance is good; more than half of fifth-graders were proficient or better in math, English, and science in 2014.
But classrooms, one per grade, are larger than Smith would like — about 25 kids in Alorah’s fourth-grade room, she said. There is little homework, and Smith has begun to worry that Alorah could arrive at a more rigorous high school ill-prepared for the workload.
And what comes next terrifies Smith. Middle school is looming for Alorah. Children get older and, sometimes, meaner. The symptoms of hard home lives weigh down classrooms. What Smith called the social aspects of school grow more troubling. She recalled skating by as a popular girl; not everyone is so fortunate.
She’s begun applying for affordable housing in places like Lexington, aiming for a town with a smaller, less chaotic school system.
For Smith, high school’s hard work paid immediate dividends. She enrolled at Northeastern University and excelled early. While only 37 percent of US seniors graduate ready for college, according to national assessments, Smith earned mostly As and Bs in her first two years — success she attributed to the “drive” she found at MATCH, and the constant pushing from teachers she’s still in touch with 12 years later.
But halfway through college, Smith got pregnant. When Alorah was born, Smith left school, vowing to return.
“That delayed things for me,” she said, “but I always said, hell or high water, I’m going to finish.” In the interim, she took community college classes that she could apply to her eventual degree — stacking classes like blocks.
When she finally reenrolled at Northeastern, two years ago, she was working full time, handling patients’ bill disputes at Tufts Medical Center. On her lunch break, she studied and did homework. At night, she was mom.
In May, she graduated from Northeastern, with a bachelor’s in business management. She took a job in the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s fraud department, tracking down over-billings. She plans to pursue a master’s degree.
“I probably feel the most accomplished I’ve ever felt,” Smith said, still beaming about her walk across the graduation stage. “It took a long time, but what matters is that you complete what you start.”
Her time at MATCH, she said, was “what propelled me to go back.” She’d like Alorah to find that same strength.
Smith learned about Question 2 from a voter information book that came in the mail. It’s easy for people whose kids’ own educations aren’t in jeopardy to talk about improving city schools, she said.
“It’s hard to be empathetic to that experience when it’s not your experience,” Smith said. “If you live in the suburbs, not only is it not your experience but you probably don’t even know people that have had that.”
The notion that opponents of Question 2 would presume to tell her what she should want for Alorah feels condescending.
“I don’t need anybody to tell me what I want,” Smith said.