Innovators Charter School began as an idea to think differently about high school. We embarked on a research-based design to incorporate new ways of doing school, so more students are able to thrive and enter college empowered to succeed. Our goal is to accelerate the pace of early college enrollment for students in the region, by providing a public school wall-to-wall early college STEM model where students build a strong foundation in the middle grades, so that all students have the opportunity to graduate with an associate degree and a pathway to prosperity.
Early college — where students can graduate high school with a high school diploma and an associate degree — is a proven approach that makes meaningful differences. Unlike the long-standing practice of dual enrollment, early college is an intentional and articulated pathway to a college degree. Early college students start working toward their degree while in high school, receiving a head start on college access and course completion. Imagine the financial benefit to families, when students earn up to 30 college credits while in high school. Studies in Massachusetts show the positive impact of early college on students, particularly students who are underrepresented on college campuses.
We have heard criticism that Innovators Charter School is duplicative to what is being offered in New Bedford and Fall River. It is not. New Bedford applied for its first early college programming this summer and is awaiting designation. Durfee High School has early college programs designated in 2020 in business, health science/medical, education, and social service leadership. The mission of Innovators Charter School is to provide early college programming in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, aligned with growing industries and labor market needs. What’s different about Innovators? We have designed the region’s first wall-to-wall early college model, meaning every single student goes to college while in high school. Durfee High School and New Bedford High School do not offer the wall-to-wall experience.
When New Bedford officials cite the 90% graduation rate for New Bedford High School, we ask ourselves, why are they leaving out students who attend the district’s alternative high schools? When accounting for all students who attend the high schools of New Bedford Public Schools, the graduation rate is 80.6%. And, the graduation rate in Fall River Public Schools remains stubbornly low at less than 72%. We believe families have the right to decide where their children attend school. Durfee High School and New Bedford High School are large comprehensive high schools with enrollments of 2,347 and 2,890 respectively. There are many benefits to large comprehensive high schools. However, as parents we know that each child is unique, and each child should be educated in a setting that offers the opportunity to thrive. Could the high school graduation and college-going rates in Fall River and New Bedford be a reflection that large comprehensive high schools may not be the best fit for some students? Innovators offers a public school alternative.
We understand that when parents select an educational setting for their child, district resources can be impacted. Whether a parent decides on private, parochial, vocational, or charter, district funding is adjusted accordingly. Importantly, when parents elect other educational options in Fall River and New Bedford, the empty seats are quickly filled. Dollars are not lost, rather they are replaced with new students entering the district. Despite the various educational options in Fall River and New Bedford, district enrollment has been steady over the past 10 years, averaging 10,200 and 12,600, respectively. And, unlike other educational options, when families decide to enroll their child in a charter public school, districts receive a reimbursement for multiple years. This year New Bedford is set to receive a reimbursement of $5,812,685 and Fall River $3,786,310 for students who attend charter public schools.
Fall River Public Schools and New Bedford Public Schools have among the lowest college enrollment and persistence rates in Massachusetts, whether two-year, four-year, public or private. And enrollment in higher education has declined dramatically over recent years. In 2015, 61% of New Bedford’s graduates enrolled in college, four years later that number decreased to 42%. Similarly, in 2015, 58% of Fall River graduates enrolled in college, and by 2019 that number dropped to 48%. Meanwhile, the state average in 2019 was 72%. On average, only 62% of Fall River and New Bedford’s students who attend college are persisting from their first year of college into their second. The state average is 82%.
The Innovators Charter School Founding Group is deeply committed to supporting all students’ journeys to enroll and succeed in higher education, particularly those students who are traditionally underrepresented on college campuses, as a means to experience economic mobility and prosperity. Our inclusive design eliminates tracking from middle school through high school and ensures a rigorous program of studies, with wraparound supports, so that all students have the opportunity to master core content knowledge, communicate their ideas effectively, think creatively, work collaboratively, and manage their own learning.
Meg Mayo-Brown, Ed.D., is a former superintendent of schools in Fall River and current superintendent in Barnstable. She submitted this commentary on behalf of the Founding Group for Innovators Charter School, where she is expected to become the school’s executive director.
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