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“Citizenship, Commitment, Scholarship and Courage,” reads a motto painted onto a school hallway. The inspirational graffiti is a play on the acronym of the Community Charter School of Cambridge, one of two charter high schools in Cambridge.
Since its founding in 2004, CCSC has aimed to close the racial achievement gap in Cambridge, attracting 80 percent African American and five percent Latino students, most of whom come from economically disadvantaged families.
The school’s teachers, however, come from the opposite end of the spectrum. One-third of the school’s teaching staff graduated from Harvard College or a Harvard graduate program, according to its Chief Communications Officer Justin T. Martin.
As it enters its sixth year, with two graduating classes and alumni at Cornell, Swarthmore, Boston College and at several University of Massaschusetts campuses, the charter school has its share of successes and continues to strive to resolve lingering issues.
Located in an atypical school setting—occupying multiple floors of a former office space—CCSC prides itself in its uniqueness, says Paula Evans, Head of School and also one of the school’s founders.
Though only six years old, CCSC has been recognized by Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78 as a 2010 Commendation School, an honor presented to schools that have helped to close the achievement gap.
All CCSC sophomores passed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, with 92 percent of students receiving a score of “proficient” or better in language arts and 74 percent receiving similar marks in mathematics and sciences. In comparison, 56 percent of African American students in Cambridge Public Schools performed below average this year according to a CPS report.
Teachers attribute the school’s success to its focus on individualized support for its students through individual attention.
“All of our students get to know the adults and teachers in the building. [Teachers] get to know every student through advising,” says teacher Laura R. Fleming, who received her masters from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Math teacher Laura A. Sheppard-Brick, also an HGSE graduate, agrees with the sentiment.
“Teachers have a lot more autonomy and smaller number of students,” she says.
A CHARTER’S CHALLENGES
The school is open to the entire Cambridge community and admits students by lottery, a system that has forced teachers to work with students starting at very different academic levels.
William D. Connell, who is also an HSGE graduate and teaches 10th-grade humanities, thinks that the “managing that kind of span” is the most challenging aspect of teaching at CCSC. There are sometimes students who join CCSC at later grades who are four to five grades behind, he says.
According to Evans, 20 percent of the students at the school are enrolled in its special education program.
“It was more of a commitment than working at a normal public or private school,” teacher Sherelle S. Ferguson ’08 says. “But if you let it, you can let it consume your life because you want the students so badly to achieve.”
While students are admitted on a first-come, first-serve basis, staff hiring is much more selective, according to Evans.
According to Evans, both teachers and students are held to higher standards. And because the school itself is young and boasts a young teaching staff, teachers become leaders early in their careers. Katherine E. Rieser ’07, who has only taught for four years, is already considered a veteran among her peers.
According to Evans, CCSC teachers are told they should expect to put in 60-65 hours of work every week.
“We are building a strong academic culture of the school. We are continuing to bring new teachers. We have high expectations for academics and behaviors,” she says.
Several teachers agree that their experience at Harvard helped prepare them for their tough teaching schedule.
“My days at Harvard translated to a highly structured program,” Rieser says.
“A Harvard experience give you a sense of the skills you need in school,” Ferguson says. “Charter schools are hardcore.”
For Ferguson, who was involved with several activities at Phillips Brooks House that prepared her for this position, it was easy to translate her “training of doing so many different things” to the class room setting.
While the rigourous curriculum and behavioral standards of CSCC have had tangible benefits, some students still find the strictness difficult to handle.
“It was hard to have a dress code for me,” recalls Steven Rodenas, now a sophomore at Boston College.
“Those that were able to stay enjoyed it, [but] some could not handle the workload,” Rodenas said, noting that some of his peers at CCSC transferred to other schools. The majority of students lost have been male, Connell notes.
Several teachers agree that the school still faces problems of retention.
Accordingt to Sheppard-Brick, “that’s always going to be a problem with a school that has higher standards.”
“We need to make sure that we’re retaining students. It’s a really rigorous environment. Some students are not ready to rise to the expectations,” Connell says. “[But] I’ve seen what happens when they stay with us.”
—Staff writer Rediet T. Abebe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Linda Zhang can be reached at email@example.com.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: November 1, 2010
An earlier version of the Nov. 1 news article "Charter School Promotes High Expectations" incorrectly stated that the Community Charter School of Cambridge is the city’s only charter school. In fact, it is one of two charter high schools in Cambridge. Prospect Hill Academy Charter also has a high school campus in Cambridge.
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