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Come Together Right Now...

How has Boston thrived in a resource-constrained era of fierce political divisions?

In his January 2012 State of the City address, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino opened with a question: How has Boston thrived in a resource-constrained era of fierce political divisions? The answer, argued the mayor, is that Boston has “refused to allow strained budgets to result in strained relationships. While others have been building walls, we have been building connections.”

One of the most critical recent connections he pointed to is the District-Charter Compact, which Mayor Menino described as an effort “to make sure all children in Boston—no matter where they go to school—receive a great education.”

The Compact was signed in April 2011 by the Boston Public Schools and the Boston Charter School Alliance, whose chairman is Kevin Andrews, founding headmaster of the Neighborhood House Charter School and a member of the 2007 class of Barr Fellows. Soon after, Pat Brandes, Barr’s executive director, sat down with Kevin to talk about the Compact and what it means for the city.

Pat Brandes: In plain English, what is the District-Charter Compact?

Kevin Andrews: First I’ll tell you what it is not. It is not a contract. It is a compact. It is an agreement to work together on issues that have divided charter and district schools for a long time. It is also an opportunity to vent concerns and to look at the whole picture of public schools in Boston—meaning both charter and district.

Pat: What are the issues?

Kevin: There are two kinds of issues. First are the immediate, front page of The Boston Globe issues, like transportation, facilities, special education, and English Language Learners (ELLs).

*Pat: The trigger points?

Kevin: Exactly. So, what the Compact does is say, “Let’s take a risk. Let’s begin this conversation and see what happens.” Just beginning that conversation is a minor victory unto itself.

Pat: After the front-page issues, what else is there?

Kevin: After the front-page, or “trigger,” issues, there is a lot for us to work through. There are issues of how to get teachers to work together. There are issues of how to develop leadership plans so we have a stronger core of leaders in both systems—charter and district. There are issues of improving teaching and learning, of sharing successful strategies, and in general how we plan for the long-term success of public education in Boston. To my mind, those are really the critical issues. But we won’t get to them until we deal with the more immediate ones.

Pat What did it take to get us to this point?

Kevin: The Gates Foundation made a big difference. They sponsored a two-day, overnight meeting in New York for districts and charters to come together. Michael Goar, deputy superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, and I both went. When people see the Gates Foundation they often get excited. They think big dollars. But in this case, I didn’t go to New York with money on my mind, and I doubt Michael did either. We both wanted to see how other districts were collaborating. We saw this as an opportunity. And something about the distance and the dedicated time away from Boston helped us to have a breakthrough.

Pat: Why couldn’t it have happened sooner?

Kevin: We couldn’t get past the politics—even though the Mayor may have wanted to. But the new legislation really changed the landscape. It gave more authority to superintendents to make big change. It also lifted the cap on charter schools to eighteen percent. So, in that new context, we had a first meeting with leaders of Boston charter schools, the superintendent, the Mayor’s chief of staff, and others from Boston Public Schools and City Hall. After that, we all met with the mayor at the Parkman House, and we presented a preliminary outline of what charter-district collaboration might look like in Boston. He got right on board and was excited by the possibility. I actually rode up the elevator with the mayor before that meeting. One of the first things he said to me—and he repeated it later to everyone—was, “I want to be mayor of all the kids in Boston.” If we’re going to do right by all kids, including special education and ELL, then we have to take a broader perspective. The solutions are bigger than Boston Public Schools. They’re bigger than the charters.

Pat: What will be different in ten years if the Compact is a complete success?

Kevin: Families will have more choices of academically strong schools. Some will be charter. Some will be district. They’ll differ in many ways—curriculum, time, how they emphasize arts or sciences, and so on. But there will be a common thread of strong academics, and a common language for parents to be able to make educated choices.

Pat: OK. But help me understand what makes the Compact a breakthrough? Why couldn’t we get to that vision without a District-Charter Compact?

Kevin: First of all, let’s be cautious about the word “breakthrough.” We have agreements on paper. We got together and said, “OK, let’s try to do this.”

Pat: Granted, but do you think that with two separate systems as we had before—charters over here and district over here—parents couldn’t experience the same level of choice?

Kevin: Prior to the Compact, we were fighting with one another. We were at loggerheads. And we fought through the media, not face to face. So the fighting was focused on the dollars, not on what is best for kids. The former superintendent, Thomas Payzant, and I tried to do some work together in that environment. Through the Project for School Innovation, we actually brought some charter and district schools together with a focus on sharing effective practice. But it was all under the radar. The politics remained a stumbling block to deeper work. In the press you had the left saying one thing and the right saying another, charters saying one thing and districts another. And we weren’t getting at the issues. The new legislation moved a lot of things, but we were still in different camps. The legislation added more flexibility into the system, but it took the Compact to make room for more conversation.

So, following that business-as-usual path… Sure, in ten years there would be some good choices for some families—and maybe even more than we have now. But the choices would remain uneven. There would be no cohesive strategies for the challenges that lie ahead. And I think the Compact holds out the possibility of a more level playing field. We create a system that is more one that two separate systems. Without the Compact, I don’t think we would have gotten to this point.

Pat: So you expect to continue working with Michael Goar and Carol Johnson on the Compact?

Kevin: Absolutely, I do. We’ve been talking about the importance of relationships. And I think relationships are critical as we move forward. Nowhere are you going to find people who don’t say they’re in this work to do what’s best for kids. But to get through the politics, to get through these complicated issues, we’ve got to be able to reach outside our different camps and learn to trust each other, to work with each other. The charters and the district are now building upon what we’ve started in order to work through some very difficult issues. It will not be easy. But there is now much more trust at the conversation level than we’ve ever had before. The challenge before us now is to build the same level of trust with the follow through.

Pat: Thanks for making the time to talk with me.

Kevin: My pleasure.

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