GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 8, 2013

Letter: Charter's closing a loss for Gloucester education


Gloucester Daily Times

---- — To the editor:

I’m not 100 percent sure what Gloucester Community Arts School trustee Jay Featherstone meant when he lauded GCA as a good place for kids who are different (the Times, Thursday, Jan. 3).

But I suspect that, by “different,” he’s referring to kids who learn best in the exceptional environment that thrived at GCA.

In truth, the vast majority of kids in any school are “different” in that they all learn differently from each other, something the district schools fail to realize. That’s why you see declining enrollment and lackluster performance — by any measure you choose — at district schools, with some of them on the verge of “failing,” according to the state.

By this definition, most of the children at GCA were, indeed, different. Some of them had been diagnosed as unusually smart, which means they’re bored by standard teaching methods employed by the district because those methods are designed for the average kid. To make matters worse, many excel in some areas and need a help in others. GCA teachers and staff recognized these areas, played to their strengths and helped the children work through their difficulties.

To be sure, GCA was not perfect. Indeed, Commissioner Chester, in his report on Nov. 16, 2012, outlined some issues that needed to be addressed — and were being addressed even as the commissioner was writing his report.

One can only speculate as to his motives, but recommending revocation only 27 months after granting a charter is unprecedented and many of the reasons given in the commissioner’s letter are inconsistent with his own report — a report that claims to be a third-year report, yet was written based on a single-day visit to GCA only 25 months after the school’s 2010 opening.

More importantly, the report fails to recognize that a majority of students showed improved performance and well being — some dramatically — as a direct result of having attended GCA.

MCAS data show that GCA middle school students outperformed students at O’Maley in English Language Arts (ELA) — 78 percent of GCA students scored proficient or higher, compared with 72 percent at O’Maley. More significant is ELA improvement (known as student growth percentage or SGP), which was much higher at GCA (e.g., 70 percent for GCA 6th graders compared with 46 percent for O’Maley 6th graders).

Most dramatic of all is that 86 percent of students who came (from district schools) to GCA’s first year as 4th graders and scored in the warning category on MCAS moved out of the Warning category by 5th grade.

But MCAS doesn’t tell the entire story. GCA parents report that, while their children were at GCA they were energized, motivated and discovered a love of learning at GCA that they had never felt before. Here are some specifics:

Parents of students who were bullied at district schools said that GCA had “no tolerance” for bullying and their children felt safe at GCA.

Students who were failing at O’Maley are now passing at Gloucester High after having switched to GCA for the remainder of middle school.

Many parents report that their children simply could not learn in the environment at district elementary schools, but thrived at GCA — and many of those kids are well above average intelligence.

Some parents were asked by teachers and staff at district schools to medicate their children, but refused and found no need for medication once their children were at GCA.

I could go on and on ... There are many lessons to be learned by GCA’s grand experiment, not the least of which is that it is much harder to build a successful school than it is to tear it down.

To those who celebrate GCA’s demise, I would ask that you feel a bit of gratitude for the brave pioneers who put their reputations, fortunes and children on the line in order to usher into Gloucester much-needed educational innovation.

PETER VAN NESS

Gloucester

The writer was a founding member of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School and is a charter school parent.