Teamwork pays off for Lowell charter school on MCAS

Date Published: 
September 23, 2014
Amelia Pak-Harvey
News Type: 

Pulling itself up even further from the brink of failure it once faced, Lowell Community Charter Public School has reached the highest achievement level in state testing for the third year in a row.

The school, which the state nearly shut down four years ago because of low MCAS scores, kept its Level 1 status after MCAS scores were released last week. The designation is reserved for state schools that meet targeted goals, the highest classification

level that only 26 percent of all schools reached this year.

The school serves 750 students from kindergarten to seventh grade and is made up of a majority of low-income, minority students whose first language is not English.

Yet 45 percent of its students designated as "English Language Learners" scored a proficient or higher on the test's English Language Arts section -- higher than the 23 percent state average.

A majority of the school's "high-needs" students -- those who are low-income, require special education or who are also English language learners -- scored proficient or higher in both English and math.

"That's my story right there," said Head of School Kathy Egmont. "We're working with the most challenging students, and we're beating the state average for working with them."

The success is a big change from the situation in 2010, which Egmont described as a nightmare. The school went through waves of layoffs, dropped a few grade levels and prepared itself for a turnaround plan.

Part of the problem, Egmont said, was that the school didn't prepare for the test.

"My sense of it was that there were some issues of management, but there was also just not an understanding that the MCAS was the only thing that mattered to the state," she said.

Now, the school has built up a MCAS "pep rally" and instills an attitude in its students to make them unafraid of the test, she said.

"It's sort of like what you do with a team," Egmont said.

"You want to win the game, but in the end you want to be able to throw and kick and pitch and do all those things. You want to learn the skills and then do your best."

This year, 53 percent of its third- through sixth-graders scored a proficient or higher in English -- a climb up from 38 percent in 2010. In math, 65 percent hit that mark, another increase from the 30 percent of four years ago.

With its increasingly high test scores, the state's education commissioner has since allowed certain grades to return -- this year the school welcomes back its seventh-grade class, growing by 100 students. Next year, the school will take on another 100

students with the return of its eighth grade.

Egmont said the school has taken a holistic, three-pronged approach that focuses on a rigorous curriculum, test preparation, and a respectful school culture where children are expected to do well.

"It's been very exciting for us at all levels," she said of the improvement. "Our teaching expectations have really grown and our teachers are becoming sort of really experienced at working with the children that we have."

But Egmont said the school still has a way to go. The school's fifth-grade scores in science and technology show 53 percent of students landed in the "needs improvement" section and 20 percent at the "warning" level.

These scores could relate to a language issue for children who came here from a different country, Egmont said, but the school will have to look further into the data.

"The test assumes a lot of basic information, and I think it's possible that we were teaching fifth-grade information and they didn't have some of the earlier information," she said.

The school's Level 1 designation outshines Fitchburg's North Central Charter Essential School and the Francis W. Parker Charter School in Devens, which both attained Level 2 status.

At the state level, officials say the improvement further bolsters the argument for an increase to the state cap on public charter schools. In July, the state Senate rejected a bill to increase the state's 73 charter schools in underperforming districts. At Lowell

Community Charter, the waiting list is currently 335.  Meanwhile, the city's lowest-achieving public schools are at Level 3 -- landing them among the lowest-performing 20 percent of schools in the state. Two schools -- Charles W. Morey Elementary and

James S. Daley Middle -- slipped from Level 1 to 2, said Superintendent Jean Franco. But two other schools, Reilly Elementary and McAuliffe Elementary, jumped up from Level 3 to 1, a feat Franco attributes to collaboration.

The district was also recognized as one of the 14 urban school districts with the highest percentage of Level 1 schools, Franco said. The district will be working with support teams for its Level 3 schools.

"I think that as far as accountability and some of the growth that we've made, it is promising," Franco said. "At the same time, I'm in the business of every child achieving the highest expectation possible, so we're always looking to improve."

Follow Amelia on Twitter and Tout @AmeliaPakHarvey.