4000+ Lawrence School Children Are Being Left Behind, But There is Hope on the Horizon

“It’s almost like winning the megabucks. I was raised in Lawrence, so I knew what the school system was like. So for me, when my children got into the lottery, I couldn’t be more happy, I couldn’t be more excited” – Juana Hilario, Parent of Community Day Charter School Student

In the words of Ms. Hilario 1200 K-8 students in Lawrence have won the lottery.  They attend one of four high performing charter schools in the city. Schools where their academic performance not only tops other Lawrence children, but also the state average at every grade level.  There are, as of 2012, 4,000 students on charter school waiting lists in Lawrence.

There are two Charter School groups in Lawrence, the Community Day Charter Schools, a consortium of three schools – two of which opened recently – and the Lawrence Family Development Charter.  The schools have 571 and 633 students respectively.  The Pioneer Institute sent out an email highlighting the success of Lawrence Charters recently, focusing on the Community Day Charter School District.

Pioneer Institute believes that all kids deserve access to a great education. That’s why we have always supported choices for parents and students, whether through interdistrict programs, vocational-technical schools, private and parochial schools, or high-quality charter schools. Earlier this year, we visited Community Day Charter Public Schools, an excellent group of schools serving grades K-8 students in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Lawrence is an older, industrial city, marked by high unemployment, a significant crime issue and a dysfunctional government. Its school district is in state receivership due to chronic underperformance and criminal malfeasance by the previous superintendent. Community Day has played a vital role in improving the prospects for children in the city. We wanted to learn more about why LCDCPS is such a success.  In the video clip below, parents, current and former students, teachers and school staff share their experiences


A look at the spring 2013 MCAS test scores of both charter schools in comparison to both the students of the Lawrence Public Schools, and students in the same grades state-wide is eye opening.  Students at both charter schools not only do better than their peers in Lawrence, but consistently score better than their statewide peers. Massachusetts students scored 2nd in the world in Science and Sixth in the world in Math recently.  The inner city students at these two charter schools blew those numbers away.  Below is a chart of the % of proficient or higher scores for Lawrence, the state average, and both charter schools by grade and subject.

Particularly amazing are the scores of the Community Day Prospect Charter School.  Not only are their scores significantly better than the state average, the students at these charter schools outperform their peers at the affluent suburb of Andover’s public schools in just about every subject and grade level.

One of the arguments that charter school opponents use to explain away the performance of charters is that the schools get to “cream the crop”. That is pick only high performing students.  This is not the case, as the students are purely given slots based on a lottery.  Furthermore if you look at the demographics of the three school districts in Lawrence you will see that the percentage of ethnic groups is identical for two of them, and Latino students make up almost 100% of the Family Development Charter school.  

Keeana Abreu, a 2010 graduate of the Community Day Charter School explained to Pioneer why her school was a success, “The teachers always taught us to put our best foot forward in the toughest situations, and not to just settle for passing or having average grades, but to excel.”

The Pioneer Institute acknowledges that under state control the Lawrence Public Schools are making strides, but the pace of those strides is concerning, “We applaud that progress, but we are also fully cognizant of the slope of the climb kids in Lawrence must make.”

In 2012, over 4,000 Lawrence children languished on waiting lists  to enroll in the city’s charter schools. They cannot afford to wait years for serious reforms to take effect – they need options now. Community Day has plans to expand to 400 students in grades K-8 by 2019, and it is partnering with the Lawrence Public Schools district to run the Community Day Arlington Elementary School. Other charter operators are also getting involved, but as  Pioneer Executive Director Jim Stergios noted last year, at most 1,500 out of Lawrence’s 13,000 district students will be served by these changes.

Parents of those in Lawrence’s public charter schools wish that all students in Lawrence could be afforded the education that their children are receiving. Juana Hilario, a charter school parent, said, “I wish there were a lot more charter schools out there so more kids in our community could have the opportunity that both of my kids have.”

Parents of those longing to win the lottery, so that their child can attend a high performing charter, have some hope.  There currently is a bill S.235) before both houses, sponsored by State Senator Barry Finegold (D) and State Representative Russell Holmes (D), that would remove all charter caps in the bottom 10 percent of school districts in terms of student performance.  

Jim Stergios, the Executive Director of the Pioneer Institute said, “the legislature and Governor Patrick did the right thing in 2010 when they lifted the limit on the number of kids in failing districts who could attend charter schools.  Now in many urban districts up to 18% of public school students can attend charters.  Since 2010, the new seats have been filled in places like Boston and Lawrence, and the number of students on waitlists has grown even longer.”

Stergios pushed for adoption of the Finegold and Holmes bill, “with a recent Stanford study showing once again eye-popping results in charters, why would legislators stand in the way? Why would they not give kids who need it the most access to good schools?”

It’s not just non-profits from outside the City of Lawrence that support a lift on the charter school cap.  Lawrence City Councilor Mark Laplante told Red Mass Group that he supports lifting the ban on  charter schools.  In addition Laplante said, “Lawrence is lucky to have two outstanding charter school systems. Lawrence parents have voted with their feet by supporting these schools, evidenced by the long waiting lists. The traditional school district has taken notice and have partnered with the charter school to advance the successful charter school components into its mainstream program.”

If you are a concerned about the cap on charter schools you can find out how to contact your legislator by clicking here.  The Pioneer Institute summed it up best.

With cities like Washington, DC, opening the doors to more charter schools, their students are on a rising trajectory that is remarkable.  Currently, 42 percent of DC’s schoolchildren attend charter schools.  As the recent Nation’s Report Card demonstrated, the DC schools are improving faster than any other jurisdiction in the country.  Allowing the 4,000 schoolchildren on the city’s charter school waitlist to attend charters would get Lawrence near the place where 42 percent of its kids are served by charter schools. That would be real reform – and given LCDCPS’ success, there is no reason why the adults should continue to block the schoolhouse door.


Material from the Pioneer Institute was used, with permission, in the writing of this story.

About Rob "EaBo Clipper" Eno