Control Experiment

What is it that urban charter schools actually do?

Reader: if you happened to read this recent New York Times piece on urban Graph-going-upcharter success, you know that the upshot is that Boston charters are *crushing* the achievement gap and sending loads of kids to college. Close reader that I am, though, I couldn’t help but notice that something was missing. Like any description at all of what makes schools like Match Charter Public School, which gets a special NYT shout out, so different from, say, schools in the suburbs where, based on the contents of my mail bag, the NYT article and the research it cites has been greeted with great enthusiasm. Which gave me a wild idea: why not interview a student who attends Match and ask her to describe what her school is like?

The smartest kids in the world
First: a bit of context. Last year I embarked on an effort to talk to as many Boston students as possible, inspired by these students who were protesting the planned closure of several schools in the city. More recently I’ve been working with a group of students who are collecting stories from their peers about testing, school funding and discipline. These students have dazzled me with their keen grasp of what’s at stake in the debate over the future of public education in cities like Boston—issues that seem to elude many of the adults who have the mic. The downside of my experiment: I’ve all but lost interest in talking to said adults. Which is why, in the year ahead, you’ll be hearing plenty from students on this page, and in my finally-just-about-to-be-shared-with-the-world podcast series: Have You Heard? But enough about me. You want to hear from Match High School senior Rayauna Moss-Cousin. Rayauna: take it away. 

match charterA love/hate relationship
My name is Rayauna Moss and I attend Match High School, a charter school in Boston. I’ve been in the Match system since middle school and I have a love/hate feeling for the school.
I love that Match is so helpful with the college process. We have classes dedicated to doing college applications and applying for financial aid. I appreciate that the most because I feel like I wouldn’t be too far in the college application process without Match.

Often school can feel like a prison to me. When it comes to discipline, my school is very strict. We have a demerit and merit system that tries to teach us to be professional and get us ready for college. However, we are often given unnecessary demerits for offenses like hugging too long in the hallways, or not being in uniform. We aren’t treated as young adults. I’ve been given detention for not having a uniform, for being late, and for chewing gum. If you are not in uniform, you have to trade in your phone or T pass as a rental for Match’s clothes. But many students need their phones to contact their parents and a T pass to get home safely. I don’t understand how demerits and detentions prepare us for college. The school doesn’t have a valid answer about how their strictness relates to college but I have stopped questioning Match because my questions are never answered.

The school doesn’t have a valid answer about how their strictness relates to college but I have stopped questioning Match because my questions are never answered.

In the past few years, a little less than half of my original class left Match because they just couldn’t take the unnecessary rules and regulations anymore. I feel like students should have equal rights, no matter what kind of school they attend. My main question is why do charter schools have to be so strict? All Massachusetts charter schools should be held to the same standards that public schools are and shouldn’t rely on harsh punishments to teach students.

Well put, Rayauna…

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14 Comments

  1. So are there no high schools in Boston that provide help with the college process without the ridiculous “discipline”?

    1. I volunteer at the Boston Arts Academy and I can tell you that they do have a college advisory office, which does a very good job. The school also uses some of its “tutorial” time (kind of like a homeroom) to prepare material for college application forms.

      I might add that the students are treated like young adults and there is clearly a lot of mutual respect between students, teachers, and administrators. I think anyone walking through the halls would gather the same impression.

  2. Thanks for your words, Rayauna. I’m sorry that you have lost so many of your classmates. That has to be discouraging. I hope that this last year goes well for you and that you get into a college of your choice!

  3. Sounds like nit-picky demerits can be used to get rid of kids the school does not want in their student body. Or maybe a rigid demerit system is needed by charter school teachers who lack classroom management skills. But what about kids like Rayauna? Does a super strict school environment build self-discipline or will it lead to kids going hog wild when they hit college? Are they teaching students or just conditioning behavior?

    1. In my story collecting project over the summer, several students talked about how the demerit system is applied unfairly in their schools, and that teachers can use demerits and the detentions/suspensions that result from them to make the lives of students who they don’t like, for whatever reason, miserable. We don’t have data yet on how graduates of Boston’s charters fare in college. (The reports I hear, though, are that completion is a HUGE issue). I bet that in the not-so-distant future schools like Match will junk much of the hyper discipline in part because it leaves students ill equipped to deal with life, including college, after no excuses. But I predict that Rayauna will do just fine. She is amazing and a free spirit…

  4. It sounds like Rayauna is having a good experience overall. She writes: “I love that Match is so helpful with the college process. We have classes dedicated to doing college applications and applying for financial aid. I appreciate that the most because I feel like I wouldn’t be too far in the college application process without Match.” The stuff she’s getting called out for – being late or not wearing a uniform or chewing gum – seem like easy-enough-to-follow policies. Also, fwiw, Match’s attrition rate looks to be among the best in the city. According to their 2014-2015 results, it was about 9% last year, which compares favorably to almost all public schools in Boston.

    1. I’ll share with Rayauna the good news re attrition as she and the other Match students I’ve talked to seem really bothered by how few of the students who started with them in 9th grade are still around. I was really glad she highlighted what she likes about the school, but I can’t help but note that you skipped over the thornier issues she raises, namely that the strict discipline code (hugging for too long in the hallway?) makes the school feel like prison, and seems to have little to do with preparing for college, unless these students will be attending colleges with similarly strict disciplinary codes–say Westpoint. It’s her last line that I think is the most important: All Massachusetts charter schools should be held to the same standards that public schools are and shouldn’t rely on harsh punishments to teach students. Thanks for reading and if you have any insight as to how the demerit system translates into college readiness, please share.

    2. Everything she likes about her school can be found in most high schools – preparing kids for college is what they do. Everything she doesn’t like is specific to Match and other “no excuses” charters. She seems to think she has to endure the latter to get the former, but she doesn’t.

  5. Awesome insight! Thank you Rayauna. I’d love to read a perspective from one of your classmates who left Match as well.

  6. It occurs to me (once again) that this is all so backwards. The neighborhood school should be the one with the strict enforcement of rules and the ‘innovative’ charter school should exist for students who don’t thrive in that environment. Of course, that would be in a world where charter schools exist to benefit children and education, not the tax liability of billionaires and all those who feed at their trough.

  7. I’m not following why or how to dismiss the NYT article saying Match is a great school. You say above that it’s like a “suburban” school, but is that really true? I just looked at Match’s annual letter where they post their demographics. Unless they’re lying — and they seem to have everything footnoted — they have students who seems just like BPS students in their race/ethnicity and in their likelihood to have English as a second language and/or and special education need. The annual letter is here: http://www.matchschool.org/about/annual-letter-2015/

    1. I said that I was struck by the fact the article says nothing at all about the specific practices of school like Match and other charters like it. I didn’t say it was like a suburban school. (I was commenting that I’ve been hearing from a great many suburban readers who are very excited that the solution has been found to *crushing* the achievement gap…) So I asked a current student to describe what the school is like. As Match is being held up as a model for urban schooling, it seems important to hear from students themselves. As for whether Match is a *great* school, perhaps for the kids who make it to the end, it is. I recommend talking to students like Rayauna and asking them what they think. They’ll tell you EXACTLY what needs to change for Match to be great.

  8. While I am not a fan of charter schools because of the tactics used to “decrease” the amount of more challenging students in terms of discipline, special education, English Language Learners, etc, I do believe that the most appealing factor IS the percentage of disciplinary problems compared to public schools. Public schools are at a disadvantage because of the amount of time and energy spent having to deal with non academic issues. It may seem trivial at the time to receive demerits for hugging, gum, or uniforms but rules are rules and if broken there are consequences. In college there is so much freedom and independence that some students do go buck wild and lack discipline especially for the “little things.” Learning to be cognizant of what seems insignificant now will only help you in the future. However, the school does need to provide clear cut reasoning behind every expectation.

  9. I am a teacher and I would argue that the challenge for any inner city school is that many students exhibit extremely disruptive behavior. You have to have rules and sometimes very rigid ones in order to actually do the job of teaching. Unfortunately, Kids do not learn how to self regulate their behavior and so then you have to have employ external control measures to to manage the classroom. All teachers do this in some way. Whether its bribing students with tangible rewards, prizes etc or demerits. Whether you are a parent or a teacher, we all have some way that we “control” the kids in our care. The degree of severity, in my experience, depends on how challenging the behaviors are. Rules actually reveal a lot about it’s students population. Do you think they would have those rules if they didn’t think they needed them. Do you know how much work that is for a teacher? Keeping track of points, demerits, etc. on a daily basis. I’m sure they’d rather not be doing that.

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