Charters, 10 Years In

By Donna Harrington-Leuker

With the precision of a drill sergeant, mathematics teacher Catalina Saenz takes her sixth-graders through the basics of negative numbers. "OK, pencils down," Saenz barks, punching the stopwatch that dangles around her neck. "What do we know about 5 plus -4?"

A graduate of Wellesley College, Saenz is in her second year at Roxbury Prep, a 155-student charter school shoehorned into the top floor of a nursing home in the Roxbury section of Boston.

Her goal for the day's lesson: to have students use the correct vocabulary to explain the mathematical operations they're doing -- concepts like "unit" and "negative direction" that they'll need to ace the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests that will be given the next week. Her method: repetition and lightning-quick drills. "You have 30 seconds," she announces as she circulates around the room. "See if you can explain it. What's 1 minus 8?"

Three seconds, two seconds, one second, click. Pencils go down, and hands go up -- straight-out-of-your-seat up -- as students jockey for the chance to explain their answers.

"This is a population that just wasn't being served," explains John King, one of the school's founders and a current codirector. "There just weren't a lot of high-quality middle-school options for kids of color." 

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