Councilor Wu Visits Charlestown HS; Learns about Open Enrollment Challenges

Charlestown High Principal Will Thomas hosted Councilor Michelle Wu on Monday morning, and the school leader educated the councilor on what he believes are unfair standards placed upon his school – a school that has a much larger population of special needs and high risk students than any other high school in Boston.

Wu visited the high school as part of her effort to learn more about the front lines of Boston Public School professionals, and Charlestown High is one of the largest open enrollment schools in the district – and one that often takes some of the most challenged student populations while also being held to a very high graduation rate standard.

“The results we see across the district are not what students all deserve,” said Wu. “There are bright spots in many places…We can’t have the right long-term conversation unless we’re looking at every single school.”

Thomas is one of the longest-serving principals in the district, having led Charlestown High for the last seven years, with four previous years as its assistant principal.

“The biggest barrier is the inequality in admissions in the schools,” he told Wu. “That’s the bottom line. I say that to everyone. You hate to blame children and I don’t. At the same time, when the math doesn’t match up with what the state sees as a successful school; in that case, it is the population you look at.”

Thomas said it is the four-year graduation requirement levied by the state that severely hurts his school – particularly because many of his students are special needs or high risk and aren’t on a track for a traditional diploma. He said more than 15 percent of his school population is non-diploma bound, whether because they are special needs or because they are in special programs like DiplomaPlus that help derailed kids get back on track to graduation.

“The four-year graduation rate is 67 percent here and that is seen as low quality or needing supports,” he said. “They don’t look into the population of kids in the who are students with disabilities who don’t or can’t earn a diploma. How is that fair?…That’s a disadvantage to an open enrollment school. We take everyone. Exam schools don’t have that large population that we do. You’re ending up punishing the kids, the school and the staff here because they can’t meet this state criteria of success.”

He said it’s the same case for English Language Learners (ELL), many whom have just come to this country and are expected to graduate in one or two years – which is impossible.

“It might take them a little longer to graduate,” he said. “When you bind them to a four-year criteria it hurts the students because they see themselves as ‘less than’ because they didn’t graduate in this four-year timeframe.”

He said a more realistic way of measuring a school like Charlestown High is to look at retention rates or dropout rates. The rates at Charlestown High for dropouts has been steadily decreasing for several years. While they may not finish in four years, Thomas said students there are finishing high school. That is significant for his school population, he said.

“I think moving away from the graduation and looking at the dropout rates is a better measure of success because if we’re severing them and helping them, they will stay,” he said. “I can control that.”

He touted the school’s pathways programs, where students can take college classes at Bunker Hill Community College in business, technology or health careers while still in high school. That is a valuable program, he said, and students can leave with up to 20 credits for college.

But such programs are still overshadowed by the exam schools, where entrance barriers are seen as a measure for guaranteed success.

The barriers for admission to schools like Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, John O’Bryant and the other pilot schools end up hurting an open enrollment school, he said. With very few students at high-performing level in Charlestown, and little to no students in the middle, there are not any role models.

“It becomes very difficult for the students to see what success would be,” he said. “Kids need models of good behavior around them to be successful. You wouldn’t believe how confident these kids here become when they take college classes. They feel smart. They feel confident. They believe they can do it.”

Wu said she has visited other schools in the past, but this was her first open enrollment school to visit.

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