In 1st, private firm opens Boston charter school

Date Published: 
August 29, 2011
James Vaznis
News Type: 

The tweets from the 31-year-old Harvard Business School graduate flowed freely this summer as he chronicled his company’s historic launch of a public school in Boston:

“We received the keys to UP Academy today, a big moment in our history,’’ Scott Given, the chief executive officer of Unlocking Potential, wrote July 1.

“4,000 applicants for teaching positions at UP Academy. . . We’ve hired 53 unbelievable team members. Just a few more spots to fill,’’ Given wrote July 14.“500 new student desks arriving soon,’’ he tweeted Aug 1.

This morning, nearly 500 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are slated to arrive at UP Academy in South Boston, with high stakes for the private company as it sets out to dramatically boost the students’ achievement.

The Boston public schools’ contract with Unlocking Potential marks the first time the city has tapped a school management firm to run one of its schools, a move that has prompted the city’s teachers union to accuse Superintendent Carol R. Johnson and the School Committee of trying to privatize public education.

Johnson has brushed off those concerns, saying the district needs to look both inside and outside for innovative ideas to overhaul public education. She has so much faith in Unlocking Potential that she asked the School Committee to give the company a second school next fall. A vote is pending.

“I could not be more excited than I am right now,’’ Given said, as he walked last week to a meeting of teachers in the school’s all-purpose room, where ornate light fixtures hang from the ceiling and where students will gather for lunch and tutoring. “The message we are delivering is really resonating with families.’’

About 85 percent of the seventh- and eighth-graders this year are from the Gavin Middle School - the school that UP Academy is replacing - while the sixth-graders are entirely new to the school building.

Many of the students have myriad challenges: About one-third have disabilities, a third are learning to speak English, and the majority live in low-income households, Given said.

Gavin Middle School experienced difficulty in educating these students, prompting Johnson to seek the unique arrangement with Unlocking Potential.

On the 2010 MCAS exams, fewer than 30 percent of Gavin students scored proficient or advanced in English and just 23 percent were proficient in math. Four years ago, the state designated the Gavin as being in need of “restructuring’’ because of chronically low MCAS scores.

Unlocking Potential has set an ambitious goal of getting 75 percent of students to score proficient or advanced in both English and math within four years. It will not be an easy feat, Given said.