Across the country, parents are fleeing the nation's public schools — high schools in particular.
Many parents turn to charter schools, hoping that local control will help spark innovation and find new ways of keeping kids from dropping out.
But one school in the Boston school system is trying to innovate from within the district. It's offering students what it calls "another course to college" — and that's also the name of the school.
Another Course to College is small: just 216 enrolled students. They're housed in an inauspicious public school building in Boston's Back Bay.
Gerald Howland, the school's former headmaster, said the idea is to offer inner-city students the same opportunities that affluent students get at tony private schools or in suburban districts.
"I've worked in many city schools over the years," Howland said. "The general pattern is to bring the curriculum down to where the teachers think the students are. The difference here is that the teachers don't do that."
ACC's unique approach to learning is immediately apparent in Robert Comeau's world literature class.
Fifteen seniors are seated at their desks, reading Virgil's Aeneid. There's nothing gimmicky about how Comeau leads his lesson on the classic. He simply burrows deep into the text, the way a professor in a college seminar would. The class is at the beginning of a journey that will take them through nearly 5,000 pages of reading.
The texts on Comeau's course outline range from the classics to thinkers like Michel Foucault and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Comeau lets students do the work. In response to a discussion of Dido, he gives the discussion a gentle push.
No Spoon-Fed Answers
"Aeneas ends up at Carthage and the representation of the enemy state is a woman, Dido. Watch for her as a representation of women who are emotionally unstable and also as the enemy state as somehow feminine," Comeau offers and then hands the discussion back to the group.
Comeau is a serious man, tall, balding, with a neat goatee. As students talk, he types on a computer and a projector displays his notes on the discussion on the classroom wall.
As in many schools, some students are well-prepared and others hang back. What's different is how Comeau responds: Comeau believes in getting the students to do the work and doesn't spoon-feed them answers.
In a discussion of the use of Virgil's extended similes, one student offers that the poet uses this device because it makes the book more interesting.
Comeau tells the student he hears this a lot. He suggests examining how the book works in a particular moment to create a distinct marriage between form and content.
"You've just kind of dipped your toe into it," Comeau said. "I hope tomorrow you'll come better prepared."
Comeau is known for this kind of directness. But he says this is what these students need if they are to succeed at their eventual goal: college.
The College Focus
Every student at ACC must be accepted at a college in order to earn a high school diploma.
The college-level curriculum is demanding, but the school's small size allows teachers to offer a lot of support. And ACC has another advantage: Boston Public Schools has designated ACC a "pilot school," which means Principal Rachel Skerritt has more control over staffing.
Skerritt is the only administrator at ACC. Except for a secretary, all other employees are teaching in the classroom.
The poverty rate at ACC is high and many students come from families where no one has ever attended college. Most students find their way here along one of two routes.
Many needed extra help and just couldn't perform in bigger, more impersonal schools. Many others were top performers and somewhere along the line they fell off the fast track.
Senior Lilly Ge had been attending the prestigious Boston Latin School for years, but she found she just couldn't keep up. Now, she feels challenged at ACC. She also feels welcome.
"For me, it was a more constructive attitude here, instead of, not exactly an elitist attitude at Boston Latin School, but definitely more, 'You're already at a certain level, so you better get it,'" Ge said.
ACC's test scores are strong. But teachers say the best way to measure their students' progress would be to follow them into college and see how many finish and how many succeed after college.
When former students do get in touch, they say that college was a breeze, especially after classes like Comeau's. Right now, though, the best ACC can do is get students into college. What happens after that is beyond their reach.