This spring, third graders across the state sat down to take the same MCAS test under the same test conditions. This included students from well-off suburbs and school districts in rural and urban areas with high levels of poverty. Third grade students from the three year-old Springfield Prep charter school and students from Longmeadow took the test on equal terms, and Springfield Prep’s students performed better in both English Language Arts (ELA) and Math. The results are a testament to what is possible when schools aim high and decide that failure is not an option.
The very existence of Springfield Prep and the MCAS test can be traced to the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act. It was landmark legislation that paved the way for some 82 charter schools that now serve over 40,000 students with over 30,000 on wait lists seeking to get into those oversubscribed schools. Massachusetts charter schools are subject to strict oversight by the state, and the number of charter schools are strictly limited by law, such that just over four percent of students are served by charters.
Though small in number, charter schools can be a lifeline for families seeking a better future for their kids. Private schools are still largely a preserve for the wealthy, and many families lack the resources to move to towns or cities with higher quality public schools. Charter schools were also envisioned to be laboratories of innovation. Freed from the control of large educational bureaucracies, charter schools are allowed—albeit with careful accountability to the state—to pursue new practices that will help close the persistent achievement gaps in our education system.
As a result, Springfield Prep, and I should mention that I am proud to say that I am board member for this school, has a longer school day. It devotes a good deal of time to professional development for their teachers, bringing them in early in August, and having regularly scheduled time for learning and collaboration throughout the year. Springfield Prep has slightly larger classes than the typical elementary school, but it has a two-teacher model, which allows the teachers to work together and offer more small group instruction. Most of all, it manages its day so that more of the time at school is devoted, well, to learning.
Springfield Prep’s demographics mirror those of Springfield. This is true in terms of race, gender, and income. It is true for the number of special education and English as a Second Language (ESL) learners. This should come at no surprise since any student from Springfield in the grades the school serves is eligible to apply. Because the number of interested students is more than double the number of available slots, students are selected by random lottery. It is the explicit mission of Springfield Prep to serve a cross-section of students from Springfield.
The spring 2018 results showed that 77 percent of Springfield Prep’s students met or exceeded expectations in math on the MCAS, compared to 66 percent for Longmeadow, or the state average of 50 percent. For ELA, it was 72 percent for Springfield Prep, 65 percent for Longmeadow, and 52 percent for the statewide average. These scores are for third graders only, which is the only testing grade Springfield Prep served last year (it is growing over the next four years until it eventually serves students in grades K-8).
Historically underserved student groups, African-Americans, Latinos, high needs, and economically disadvantaged students, all of them, doubled in nearly every respect the performance of their statewide peers. For example, 67 percent of African-American scholars at Springfield Prep met or exceeded expectations in math versus 29 percent of African-American students statewide, or again, the 66 percent of Longmeadow students of all races. Another example is the 70 percent of high needs students at Springfield Prep who met or exceeded expectations in math, as compared to 32 percent of high needs students statewide.
Springfield Prep did all of this with less, and not more, of what Longmeadow has. Springfield Prep shared a building with another charter school last year. Its classrooms were smaller, the eating space was smaller. It did not have a gym, but rather a smaller indoor space for physical education, and its outdoor playspace was limited. In fact, the school has struggled to find the space in Springfield it needs to run its program. This year, it is operating temporarily at the former Heritage School on the JCC campus because of this challenge.
The Springfield Prep story of success from spring 2018 is remarkable. In math, for example, it ranked in the top five percent of all Massachusetts school districts, outpacing not just Longmeadow but places in the eastern part of the state known for academic excellence like Newton and Brookline. But it is just the first chapter of a story that will unfold every year, just like the story of Longmeadow’s educational system gets re-told every year. No gain is permanent, no battle stays won, and an immense challenge presents itself every time a new class of scholars enters through the doors of Springfield Prep and every other public school.
As impermanent as they may be, these results affirm the hard work done by the Springfield Prep staff, and more importantly, the students themselves and their families. This school is ready to continue that hard work and to serve as a ray of hope for all those who believe that every student deserves a first-rate public school education.
– Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.