Building boom at Boston charter schools outpaces that at other city schools
Eleven-year-old Serenity Withers and her schoolmates have lived a nomadic existence at Bridge Boston Charter School over the last five years as the school bounced from one lackluster building to another. One location was largely devoid of sunlight, and tutoring and instrumental lessons took place in the hallway. Recess was relegated to a parking lot.
But this year, after Bridge Boston spent $25 million renovating a shuttered community health center in Roxbury, Serenity finally enjoyed everything a public school building should offer: a cafeteria, gymnasium, science lab, several playgrounds, and a sunlit atrium that doubles as a library and assembly space.
“When I first walked in I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is my school,’” she said. “It’s nice to have a place to call home.”
From East Boston to Mattapan, most of the 16 charter schools in Boston have either a major construction project underway, recently completed one, or are about to embark on one. The 11 projects collectively total almost $300 million and will create about 600,000 square feet for 5,700 students in kindergarten through grade 12, according to a Globe analysis.
The flurry of activity among these independently run public schools over the past five years starkly contrasts the anemic pace of a school construction program launched by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who made a campaign pledge in 2013 to spend $1 billion to fix the city’s deteriorating school buildings.
But city and school officials have yet to devise a plan detailing which schools would get new buildings or major renovations, and no plan appears forthcoming. Just last month, Superintendent Tommy Chang told the School Committee, while responding to one member’s pointed questions, that an advisory group of more than 30 people will be assembled for more community engagement before any plan is drafted.
Meanwhile, the only large-scale projects moving forward have been in the pipeline since the days of then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino: The Dearborn STEM Academy is slated to move into a new building this fall, the Eliot K-8 Innovation School finished renovating a building last year, and Boston Arts Academy’s building will be replaced with a modern structure. Planning for a fourth project, Quincy Upper School, has repeatedly stalled.
The Boston Public Schools defended its construction investments, noting that the combined costs of the Dearborn and Boston Arts projects are $200 million, which includes $86 million in state reimbursements. The school system also said it is planning to renovate the Carter School and is spending $18.5 million to refurbish another building for the Eliot, giving that school three locations.
“BPS and the City of Boston are in the process of developing a thoughtful, deliberate long-term strategy to address the individual needs of schools and the overall needs of the district,” Richard Weir, a school system spokesman said in a statement.
That charters are establishing a stronger track record than the city in bringing large-scale projects to fruition defies expectations for these schools, which are barred under state law from receiving lucrative reimbursements from the Massachusetts School Building Authority for any construction or repairs.
Charters also cannot borrow money under the city’s very strong bond rating. Instead, they must cobble money together from a variety of sources, often securing private-sector loans, launching multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaigns, and squirreling away some of their per-student state aid that is earmarked for facility expenses.
All the while, charter school leaders have to hunt for an ideal site in Boston’s tight real estate market, while sometimes wading through contentious community debate.
Jon Clark, codirector of Brooke Charter Schools, said charters are probably achieving construction success because of pressing urgency. Many charters have been running out of space in woefully inadequate buildings because of rapid enrollment growth.
He also noted that even though charters face greater challenges in financing projects, their small size makes it easier for them to make a decision than in a large system like Boston, which must come up with an equitable plan for all of its 125 schools.
“We are a lot more nimble,” he said.
In addition to Bridge Boston, Boston Preparatory Charter School in Hyde Park opened a new building this year. Brooke Charter Schools will follow in the fall with a new high school in Mattapan — its third project in four years — while Boston Collegiate Charter School is expanding its Dorchester site.
More are probably on the way. Conservatory Lab Charter School recently received city approval for a building in Dorchester, and Roxbury Preparatory Charter School is in the midst of a heated neighborhood debate over erecting a high school in Roslindale.
All these projects follow others completed in recent years by Codman Academy in Dorchester, KIPP Academy in Mattapan, and Excel Academy in East Boston. Brooke also did two projects for its lower-grade students in East Boston and Mattapan.
“It has been a very long journey,” said Yully Cha, executive director of Bridge Boston, noting that more than 20 locations were vetted. “The incredible responsibility to put forward something that will last, and the number of zeros attached to each decision was overwhelming.”
But she added, “The new facility elevates the expectations of our students and reflects the value of our students.”
The project, which was the subject of 16 community meetings, raised concerns in the neighborhood over traffic. But school leaders eventually won over some detractors by emphasizing they wanted to become part of the neighborhood’s fabric while noting they would be near many nonprofit partners and students’ homes.
The Roxbury Prep project would be the largest, housing 800 students in a three-story building featuring a cafeteria, gymnasium, and 66 parking spaces. Although some neighbors support the project, others oppose it, worried about traffic and parked cars flooding their neighborhood.
About a half-dozen elected officials sent a letter last month to the Boston Planning and Development Agency objecting to the project, arguing that Roxbury Prep has insufficiently addressed the concerns of residents.
Roxbury Prep leaders say they have taken steps to address some issues. For instance, they added an underground parking garage and reduced the number of students who would attend.
“Everyone knows there is development fatigue in many communities in Boston,” said Anna Hall, a chief operating officer for Uncommon Schools, an out-of-state charter management organization that runs Roxbury Prep. “We are super sympathetic to it.”
But she added, the location, which currently is an underutilized auto services site, will eventually be redeveloped by someone, and for Roxbury Prep it solves a big problem: Its high school is currently split between two locations in two neighborhoods.
Officials for the Greater Belgrade Avenue Neighborhood Association Inc., a vocal opponent of the project, declined to comment for this story.
When officials at Codman Academy scoured their section of Dorchester for a place to house their primary grades, they knocked on the doors of buildings not even for sale. Their tenacity paid off. They purchased a building across the street from their high school program that was not on the market but had been struggling to fill empty storefronts and offices.
The design of the $12 million project took on a novel theme that emulates a walk in the woods, inspired by research on how students experiencing trauma can find comfort in nature.
Classrooms and hallways are painted in earth tones instead of bright primary colors and feature twig and leaf designs. The school also boasts a garden-like play area outside.
“We saw a big shift in students’ eagerness to be in school and saw more smiles,” said Thabiti Brown, Codman’s head of school. “I think over time we will see those academic results.”