A year of tumult at the state’s largest charter school leaves a besieged leader in place, but the future uncertain

Fall 2005
Photograph by Frank Curran

On June 30, Roger Harris was not fired from his position as headmaster and CEO of the Boston Renaissance Charter School by the school’s governing board. Whether that non-event marks a turning point in the troubled history of the state’s largest autonomous public school—one that has become a popular alternative to the Boston public schools, especially for African-American families, but that gets academic results state education officials see as unacceptably poor—remains to be seen.

In fact, the school and its leader each dodged a bullet in recent months. The state Board of Education renewed the school’s five-year charter despite damning reports and only under strict conditions, while Harris fought off repeated attempts to remove him from his job in the course of the year—in part, thanks to the intervention of state legislators and, most questionably, the state education commissioner himself. In the end, Harris remained, and a majority of board members resigned.

From the start, Renaissance was the biggest gamble of the new charter school movement in Massachusetts. Opening in 1995 with 630 students in kindergarten to fifth grade and later expanding through eighth grade and enrolling 1,400 students, the school’s founders deliberately set out to challenge the status quo on a grand scale.

The Renaissance School performs at or below the level of Boston public schools on standardized tests in most areas.

“We decided to go for the big one,” Renaissance cofounder Robert Gaudet told The Boston Globe on the eve of the school’s opening in September 1995. “For better or worse, we are going to get noticed.” Renaissance is certainly getting noticed, but hardly in the way Gaudet and his fellow founders had hoped.

Is Renaissance, now starting its 11th year of operation, ready to begin a renaissance of its own? If it is not, the consequences could be severe for the more than 1,000 students enrolled in the school, and for the broader charter school movement in Massachusetts, which was supposed to produce schools not just of choice but of excellence —or shut them down.

harter schools, which are publicly funded but operate free of union contract rules and other bureaucratic strictures common to district schools, were supposed to use their managerial independence to devise academic programs that produce learning at high levels, regardless of the challenges students arrive with. But after a decade of operation, the Renaissance School continues to perform at or below the level of the Boston public schools as a whole on standardized tests in most areas. Convinced that new leadership was needed, members of the Renaissance board of trustees—which consisted of prominent business leaders but also several members with backgrounds in education, including an elementary school principal, a school psychologist, and a college administrator— last fall told headmaster Roger Harris, then starting his seventh year leading the school, that he had lost the confidence of the school’s governing body.

Despite months of negotiation, Harris and board members could not reach an agreement under which the headmaster, who is paid $166,000 a year, would leave his position. So the board voted last December 20 to fire him, effective at the end of the school year. The vote was 9-2, with the only dissent coming from the two parent representatives on the board.

“The beginning and end of the issue was the lack of adequate academic progress on the part of our students,” says former board member John Gilmartin, the ex-CEO of Millipore Corp., who was among the most vociferous in arguing to fire Harris.

But removing the 58-year-old Harris, a prominent black educator who had been wooed to Renaissance from the Timilty School in Roxbury, a Boston middle school that had earned high marks under his leadership, was not as easy as it seemed. The school’s demographics (as of last year, the student body was 84 percent black and 13 percent Hispanic), along with its large size, show that Renaissance has become an educational mainstay for black families in Boston—and a natural focus of concern for their elected representatives.

In early January, after hearing from Harris that he had been fired, Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, the only black member of the state Senate, contacted members of the board and asked them to attend a meeting in her State House office to explain their actions. Along with Wilkerson, two other black lawmakers, state representatives Gloria Fox of Roxbury and Marie St. Fleur of Dorchester, were present for a meeting with members of the Renaissance board in early January that stretched well into the night.

“In a sentence, it didn’t make sense,” Wilkerson says of the board’s move to fire Harris. Regardless of the school’s academic performance, she says, the board failed miserably in communicating its concerns to parents and to a broader school community in which support for Harris is strong.

“It’s not about going to the mat for Roger,” insists Wilkerson. “But everything I know is that he has a real plan to raise scores, and a level of support from parents that other charter and public school leaders would die for.” Less than a week after the tense meeting in Wilkerson’s office, the Renaissance board voted unanimously at its monthly meeting to rescind the termination vote.

Full explanations of the board’s actions are hard to come by. Although a charter school board of trustees effectively operates as the school committee for a publicly funded school, none of the three board members remaining from the December vote to fire Harris—and sudden reversal of that move a month later—would discuss the school’s plight on the record. These members include Nicholas Paleologos, a former Woburn state representative who, as House chairman of the Legislature’s education committee in the 1980s, was an early advocate of greater public school accountability.

According to the Renaissance board’s minutes, it was Paleologos who made the motion in December to terminate Harris, and then three weeks later moved to rescind the vote. Paleologos did not respond to several telephone and e-mail messages. Also unwilling to speak on the record were board members Monroe “Bud” Moseley, vice president of a Boston executive search firm, and parent trustee Jackie Sinclair.

Of the nine Renaissance board members who resigned this spring, the only two who agreed to speak on the record, Gilmartin and former University of Massachusetts president David Knapp, did not attend the January board meeting where Harris’s termination was rescinded.

Headmaster Roger Harris was fired in December, then
“unfired” in January.

Republished with permission of the
Globe Newspaper Company, Inc.

“In my opinion, it was a very odd reversal for the board to take,” says Gilmartin. He says explanations he received from board members who were there suggested that the move was designed to “relieve the pressure [in order] to permit the negotiations for a friendly exit” on Harris’s part—even though such negotiations had failed to bear fruit for months.

For his part, Harris brushes off the whole attempt to unseat him. “I attribute that to growing pains and misunderstanding,” says Harris. If so, there were more growing pains and misunderstanding to come.

omplicating the wrangling over school leadership was the school’s application for renewal of its charter, a process all Massachusetts charter schools must undergo every five years, which was then pending. Gilmartin and Knapp say the charter renewal was very much on the mind of Renaissance board members, who felt it was imperative to make a change.

“We started out with a school that was going to be better than the Boston public schools, and on the exam scores, we aren’t, and it’s not doing justice to the kids’ potential,” says Knapp.

“Its performance fairly resembles that of a Boston public school,” says Gilmartin. “As a charter school, that’s not acceptable.”

That charter schools are expected to be superior, not just an alternative, to district schools was the clear view taken by James Peyser, chairman of the state Board of Education, when he spoke at the board’s February 15 meeting.

“If charter schools serve only to expand parental choice without significantly raising the bar of student achievement, this innovative and ambitious reform will have little or no impact on the wider landscape of public education,” Peyser declared, according to minutes of the meeting. “Charter schools need to be about excellence, and specifically about proving that excellence is possible and achievable even under difficult circumstances, and even with students whom others may have given up on.”

Peyser’s comments were not directed at Renaissance, however, but rather at the Frederick Douglass Charter School in Roxbury, one of two Boston charter schools that the state board ordered closed last winter because of poor academic performance or financial instability.

Asked whether applying his standard to Renaissance ought to have closed that school as well, Peyser says it was a “fairly close call,” but that there enough was hope for improvement at Renaissance, especially in the school’s lower grades, for the state board to renew its charter. Citing particularly poor scores among its middle school students, however, the state board ordered the elimination of the school’s seventh and eighth grades, and—in a highly unusual move, given that charters are typically renewed or revoked, rather than extended provisionally—said full five-year renewal of the Renaissance charter would be contingent on the school meeting certain benchmarks in academic performance by February 2007.

If Peyser and the state board saw hope for improvement at Renaissance, these signs of life escaped the notice of a consulting team that prepared the renewal inspection report for the board of education after conducting a three-day site visit at the school last fall.

“There has not been any significant increase in overall student performance [at the Renaissance School] during the course of its charter,” said the report. There were a few bright spots in the school’s scores—the fourth-grade English scores on MCAS rose considerably from 2003 to 2004—but a majority of students remained in the lower “needs improvement” or “warning” categories. In the math test, only 9 percent of Renaissance fourth-graders scored in the advanced or proficient categories, compared with 24 percent of students in the Boston school system and 42 percent of students statewide.

David Driscoll, the state commissioner of education, says Renaissance escaped the fate of the two other Boston schools whose charters were revoked, but only barely. “Whereas the other two were Fs, you could say Renaissance was a D-minus, particularly in the area of student achievement,” says Driscoll. “It’s clearly not a success story.”

Some observers suggest that Renaissance’s size and prominence as one of the first charter schools in the state may have given it some insulation as it faced renewal, a view with which Peyser does not entirely disagree. “There’s no question that the prospect of closing a school of 1,400 students raises the stakes a little bit and makes you swallow a little bit harder,” he says. Peyser says the strong level of parent support for the school and its track record of “financial and organizational stability” also weighed in the board’s action.

Nevertheless, Rep. Fox says the close call on the Renaissance renewal—combined with the closure of the other Boston charter schools—is troubling. “Some people saw it as an attack on black parents trying to get the best educational opportunity for their kids,” she says. “All three of the schools that were in question happened to be predominantly African-American or African-American and Latino.”

er charge hits at the heart of a key debate over charter schools: Is their purpose primarily to provide greater educational choice to families whose children are often otherwise stuck with troubled big-city public schools, or to set the bar for academic achievement higher than that of struggling school districts in which charters tend to be concentrated?

Harris suggests that parents are good arbiters of a charter school’s effectiveness, and he points to the 1,700 children on the waiting list for a slot at the Renaissance. “Critics can criticize, but the parents, who are the customers, like the product,” says Harris. “I think charter schools should be measured by the demand.”

He adds that MCAS scores don’t capture the school’s rich arts and music curriculum or the “character development” that is emphasized at the school. “Our kids are respectful,” he says. “That’s not reflected on MCAS scores, but parents understand and they respect that.”

‘It’s very important to me as a black parent that the male students in our school have a positive role model.’

“The school is bigger than MCAS,” says Theresa Latson, co-chair of the school’s parent advisory board, whose daughter is in sixth grade. “I watch him amongst the male students in the school,” she says of Harris, “and it’s very important to me as a black parent that the male students in our school have a positive role model. I’ve seen him reprimand them when they need that, but I’ve also seen him encourage them and tell them they can do anything they want if they put their mind to it. Our children, especially the male children, don’t get that enough.”

Asked why Renaissance students generally perform at or below the average for the Boston public schools, one of the lowest performing districts in the state, Harris replies, “They’re Boston kids.”

He adds, “That business about outperforming [the district public schools], that’s somebody else’s argument. If you talk to educators, people at the grassroots, in classrooms, they’re interested in meeting the needs of kids, they’re not interested in competing with other schools.”

But Harris’s views are at sharp odds with policy-makers as well as with the leading voices of the charter school movement itself. A report issued in August by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools addressed many of these issues head on. “We’re concerned about attitudes and beliefs that have crept into some quarters of our movement,” the report said. “For example, that our job simply is to offer a different choice, and the market will sort out what parents want. Or…worst of all—that we can’t succeed because ‘you don’t know our kids.’… Those are the kinds of excuses we’ve heard for years from failing schools in traditional districts, and they have no place in the charter movement.”

Marc Kenan, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter School Association, says that through the establishment of statewide standards and the national No Child Left Behind law, “the state and federal government have very clearly come down on the side of academic performance over choice.”

The Renaissance school has been told by the state that it must show significant progress by February 2007 toward meeting the federal No Child Left Behind goal of all students being “proficient” in math and English by 2014 or risk the loss of its charter. With little time to lose—and only three members left on the school’s board of trustees—Driscoll, the state education commissioner, took the unusual step this spring of moving in to shore up Renaissance, enlisting the aid of two consultants to help the school with academic programming and financial administration until new board members are brought on.

riscoll’s move came in the wake of yet another twist in the Renaissance saga. Led by Gilmartin—who was absent from the January trustees meeting when Harris’s termination was rescinded—the Renaissance board signaled once again that it was prepared to take up the question of Harris’s tenure at a board meeting scheduled just after the end of the school year. The move provoked outrage among parents, and Driscoll intervened personally, persuading board members to drop the issue and let the school move ahead under its current leadership.

The June 30 meeting was packed with parents supportive of Harris, and no vote was taken on his removal as principal. Instead, in the wake of the meeting, nine Renaissance board members resigned. Quitting the board in addition to Gilmartin and Knapp were Rick Holden, the CEO of J.L. Hammett Co.; Faye Sampson-Russell, an administrator at MassBay Community College; Tony Helies, a venture capital executive; Patricia Kelly, the principal of the Bowen Elementary School in Newton; Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter, a psychologist at The Park School; Anne Hyde, former chairman of Bunker Hill Community College’s board; and Joseph Wheeler, a former Renaissance School parent.

Driscoll defends his actions, arguing that if the Renaissance board had been convinced that a change in leadership was necessary, it should have stuck with its decision to fire Harris back in December. By the end of June, however, with a new school year only two months away, he says dismissing the headmaster without a plan for the school’s management would have only compounded Renaissance’s problems.

‘I don’t need to be involved,’ says Driscoll. ‘But I felt I had to step in because the situation was such a disaster.’

Still, Driscoll acknowledges that, as the accountability agent charged with evaluating charter schools’ performance, he should not be telling a charter school board what to do or involving himself in efforts to stabilize the school.

“Very clearly by statute I don’t need to be involved, nor should my office be involved,” says Driscoll. “But I felt I had to step in because the situation was such a disaster. My interest is to get the place stable and turn it back over to the board of trustees.”

For his part, Gilmartin concedes that the board made plenty of missteps in its handling of the issue of Harris’s leadership. But, he says, “the reality of the educational effectiveness of the school, unfortunately, remains unaltered by all of this.”

A decade after the school’s auspicious opening, Gaudet, one of its cofounders, sounds a note of resignation, calling the Renaissance a “lost opportunity.”

“I used to say it’s a public school in Boston but not a Boston public school, but I would say it’s morphed into the latter,” he says of the lackluster academic achievement. “It’s tragic for the kids of Boston—simple as that.”

Driscoll strikes a more neutral posture, but makes it clear that the state’s patience is wearing thin.

“The parents have won, so to speak,” he says of the battle to save Harris’s job. “Now he’s got an opportunity. We expect results.”

Such a crucible is nothing new for the Renaissance School, nor are assurances that dramatic improvements in academic outcomes are in the offing. In 1999, as Renaissance prepared for the school’s first charter review, school leaders braced themselves for tough questions about disappointing test scores. “In another three, four or five years, I’d be willing to have our kids compared to any other school in this city or across the state,” Harris told the Boston Herald at the time.

Speaking in mid-August of this year, Harris says it won’t be fair to judge Renaissance on the spring 2005 MCAS scores that will coming out this fall, because “there was so much distraction” at the school from the turmoil over his tenure. But big improvement in the school’s academic results, he says, is just around the corner.

“A year from now,” he says, “you and other people will be calling me saying, ‘How did you do it?’”