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Request for Review - Conservatory Lab Charter School

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
March 18, 2011


Conservatory Lab Charter School (CLCS) is a Commonwealth charter school located in Boston. The school opened in 1999 and is chartered to serve 154 students in grades K1-5. It is fully enrolled in the current school year, with a reported waiting list of more than 600 students. In January 2009, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (Board) renewed the school's charter with three conditions regarding implementation of its Learning Through Music program and ensuring a programmatically accessible facility. Last month, at the Board's February meeting, I reported that the school had met all three conditions, and the Board voted to remove the conditions.

Last summer the CLCS board of trustees requested a major amendment to the school's charter, to include three additional grades (6-8) and 286 additional seats. This amendment request was evaluated along with all of the other requests for new and expanded charter schools in Boston this year. As I reported to you last month, I did not recommend the CLSC request for approval. Although the school's academic performance is satisfactory, it was my judgment that the school did not meet the very high standards we set this year for proven provider status. Other applications were stronger, and the limited number of available seats in Boston required us to make difficult choices.

Under the Board's regulations, when the Commissioner denies an amendment request, the charter school's board of trustees may seek review of that decision by the Board (603 CMR 11.06). CLCS board chair Stephanie Perrin requested such a review on behalf of her board; her letter of February 23, 2011, is attached.

Subsequent to receiving the school's request for review, staff from the Department's Charter School Office have held additional discussions with CLCS leadership. As a result of those discussions, CLCS has reevaluated their original request and has indicated a willingness and desire to seek a much more modest expansion for the coming school year. The school is now asking to add one additional grade (6) and 15 additional seats. See the attached letter from Diana Lam, head of school, dated March 14, 2011. The smaller number of seats eliminates the requirement for proven provider status, as these seats can fit within the 9% net school spending cap in Boston; proven provider status is required only for seats that exceed the 9% threshold.

Even though I denied the school's initial amendment request, I believe CLCS is a school with great potential. Its Learning Through Music curriculum, based on the internationally recognized El Sistema program, is the type of innovative program that we want charter schools to demonstrate. There is extremely strong support for the program among parents and in the community, including support from a number of performing arts organizations. Efforts to improve the school's performance, both academically and organizationally, have accelerated since the appointment of veteran educator Diana Lam as the head of school. In contrast to many of the other charter schools in Boston, CLCS is already serving a significant number of English language learners - 32.5% of its students are classified as first language not English, and 17.5% are classified as limited English proficient.

The school has two major reasons for wanting to expand into the middle grades. First, there are no other comparable instrumental music programs available to middle school students in Boston. The school's hope is to eventually provide a bridge that will serve students until they reach high school, where more performing arts options are available. Second, the school experiences some attrition at grades 4 and 5, as some students leave for other middle school options that begin at those grades. The board of trustees believes a K1-8 grade span would allow them to have a much higher retention rate, and this is at least anecdotally supported by the large number of supporting letters we have received from parents of current students.

Taking all of these factors into account, I have decided to support the school's request for one additional grade and 15 additional seats effective this coming September. I have made it clear to the school that should the Board approve this request, it does not in any way commit us to future approval of an additional expansion to grades 7 and 8. Such approval would require an increase in the available number of seats in Boston; continued improvement in the school's academic performance so that it can qualify as a proven provider; and a competitive application that will likely be judged against other strong applicants.

Representatives of the school will be present at the Board meeting on March 22, and Charter School Office staff will be available at the meeting to answer your questions.

A motion for approval is attached for your consideration.


  1. Letter from Stephanie Perrin, February 23, 2011
  2. Letter from Diana Lam, March 14, 2011


Last Updated: March 21, 2011
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