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Four years ago, Brett Peiser (MPP '96) and Susan Fortin (MPA '96) had a dream. Targeting a South Boston, Massachusetts community that had struggled with more than 200 attempted suicides in 90 days, they started up a charter school called South Boston Harbor Academy (SBHA).
"While it wouldn't be the savior for these kids, we could at least be another good place they could turn to in difficult times," says Peiser, principal and co-founder of the school.
While most of the debate about improving education has focused on addressing the financial constraints, SBHA is a testament to the fact that innovation in education has a lot to do with allowing schools the flexibility to try new things. "I think that people are waiting for a panacea in education, but that panacea won't come," said Peiser, who taught in the New York City public schools before coming to the Kennedy School. He is convinced that "we're never going to find the 100 percent solution." Instead, he believes passionately in "a hundred little one percent solutions."
Any student who shows up late for class at SBHA, for example, gets a demerit; three of those and they've got a detention. All homework is due at 8 a.m., and parents are called by 9 a.m. if all homework assignments aren't completed. Students also have to stay after school for an hour to complete any missing assignments. Homework is recorded on the outgoing voicemail message every night for parents who want to find out their children's assignments.
SBHA students had a higher average score on all five exams in all three grades on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Achievement Test, which Peiser points to as proof that innovation in education works. "What happens here that makes our school successful is we're able to implement these little things," Peiser says. "They're collectively important."
Peiser enthuses that any Kennedy School student interested in education policy should apply to start a charter school, insisting the application process isn't as complicated as some may think. "At a young age, you can start your own school. You can see a problem, target a solution and make it effective."
Following up on the success of SBHA, Peiser plans to open a second charter school in the fall of 2002 if he can locate the appropriate space. "The 800 pound guerilla is finding a building," he says.
The Kennedy School recently recognized Peiser's commitment to public service by presenting him with the Rising Star Award, which honors younger alumni who are doing extraordinary work in public service at a relatively early stage in their careers.