The road curves around Williams Lake in Marlborough, MA, a bucolic spot except for the boarded-up buildings left over from what was once a booming manufacturing past. These days mid-Massachusetts is a thriving hub for high-tech companies that have little need for the cavernous old plants.
I head up a hill to a couple of re-purposed old buildings, now the home of the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School (AMSA).
A big sign welcomes me by name. Folks are friendly and easy, which seems to be the charter way. Because prospective students must apply to get in and be chosen by lottery, public charter schools enjoy the luxury of having teachers and families who actually want to be there. It tends to jolly up school atmosphere. AMSA adults shoo kids to class. The kids chat and dawdle. So far, this school seems pretty typical.
Typical it is not. In my 20-plus years of visiting schools, I've never seen anything like it. Business and industry have been screaming for better-prepared students for the STEM workforce – science, technology, engineering and math. But this school delivers incredibly well-prepared kids – in all subjects! – using a set of such unusual strategies, I'll be spending the next three weeks examining them.
AMSA opened in the fall of 2004 with 300 6th and 7th graders. It grew by a grade each year, to grade 12, graduating its first class last spring.
But as the original 7th-grade class finished 8th grade, fully half of them chose to go elsewhere for 9th grade. School leaders were dumbstruck. The same drop happened the following year, leaving, curiously, 62 kids in each of those classes. Apparently, parents liked AMSA's rigorous middle-school curriculum, but didn't trust that a new charter could make their kids maximally attractive to colleges. Mid-Massachusetts also happens to be home to some of the nation's most prestigious private schools, like Phillips Andover Academy.
Even so. While some of the most talented and well-supported kids departed, the remaining students stepped up big time. They have since enrolled or been recently accepted into Harvard, Brown, Cornell, University of Chicago and the like. Of course many are going to the state's own universities, but the first two graduating classes proved that AMSA competes handsomely with "the best." The attrition from grade 8 to 9 has diminished greatly. Why pay for the elitism of private school when a diverse public school offers excellent college preparation?
Bear in mind that any kid can put her name in the hat for a charter seat. Among AMSA's current 966 students are geniuses, flakes and struggling learners. Enrollment preference goes first to siblings of current students, then students from four contiguous towns, Marlborough, Clinton, Maynard, and Hudson. If those groups don't fill the roster, the school accepts students from anywhere. When they first opened, AMSA took kids from far and wide because the local public schools publically smeared AMSA in an effort to hang onto their kids.
While the school has only has a small portion of students eligible for federally-subsidized lunch (a poverty indicator), it is quite diverse. The professionals who work in the core towns' computer and bio-tech industries tend to live elsewhere. These days about 46 percent of the students come from blue-collar Marlborough, the school's home town.
Given the rigors of the program, the moment students arrive, they are tested so the school can map out a remediation strategy to bring all kids, no matter their background, up to grade level.
With the diversity of the student population in mind, let's get a few more of AMSA's achievements on the record:
Last year, AMSA's 10th graders were #1 in the state on the state test, the MCAS.
In math, the 10th graders were #8 out of nearly 400 MA high schools. But AMSA was #1 for students scoring Advanced – 89% of last year's 10th graders scored Advanced, beating out even the prestigious exam-school, Boston Latin.
The 8th graders were 2nd in the state on the MCAS science test.
Out of the 250 Advance Placement exams that AMSA students took, 81 percent got a 3 or higher, which is considered college-level achievement. Fifty-nine percent had a 4 or 5 (the highest).
The average score of the student body on the math SAT II was 740 (out of a perfect 800).
And just to show that the humanities are not slighted, the Latin Club were national champions at the "novice level" and came in 5th place at the "intermediate level."
There's more, but why harp? The question is: who are these guys? And how did they do it?
Over the next three weeks, we'll look at three of their principal strategies. First, they use an "Eastern Block" curriculum, which is apparently everyday fare for, say, Russians. (A Russian started the school.)
Then we'll delve into the requirement that every student in grades 6-11 take year-long computer- science courses.
And lastly, we'll look at the advantages of instructors from different subjects collaborating on teaching the same topic. The humanities teachers might study the Greeks through the different lenses of literature, history, geography and art.
It's a really unusual and rigorous place. With an upbeat atmosphere to boot.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.