GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 25, 2012

Taking the reins at charter school

Beth Delforge builds student thinking skills from school's 'white canvas'

By Steven Fletcher Staff Writer
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — Classes at the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School begin each morning with a meeting, with teachers and their students on all grade levels sitting down to talk and setting the tone for the day.

The meetings let students have a role in setting goals, and the direction for the day, says Beth DelForge, the school’s new director of education. And the “responsive classroom” type of teaching is one of a few new practices brought into the full school’s curriculum by Delforge.

Responsive classroom at its simplest, she says, helps the pupils stay curious, questioning, and engaged.

“When you put that together with really engaging curriculum, that’s when they (teachers) start to move children’s thinking and build critical thinking routines,” Delforge said in an interview Wednesday morning. “That’s my hope for GCA.”

This week, Delforge took the helm of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School. She served as the school’s director of education, essentially a curriculum director, in the schools first weeks of its third year, before Executive Director Tony Blackman resigned.

Blackman cut his own position to help the school survive a stiff budget cut when enrollment dropped from expectations of 180 students to roughly 129. That has left Delforge leading the charter school through its third year.

Gordon Baird, member of the school’s Board of Trustees, said that having Delforge on staff is the only thing that made that the transition work as smoothly as it did. Blackman, who remains on the board, left his full-time position last week.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do that if Beth (Delforge) wasn’t who she is,” Baird said.

The change means that Delforge has moved up to handling everything from bus contracts to dealing with the curriculum – to comforting crying children and, when winter rolls along, deciding whether to call off school.

Delforge said the school’s board will provide support where she needs it.

She said she sees her educational role as creating sound, innovative teaching that illuminates the state’s common core standards with the arts, from music to theater. It’s a kind of experiential learning that she drew from her early days in teaching at the O’Maley school when it was a reform school and part of the coalition of essential schools years ago.

Delforge said she’s finishing the foundation that Blackman built after taking the school through two building but often tumultuous years.

In those years, the charter school fought to stay viable. Now, in its third year, the school filled out its kindergarten through Grade 8 mission, and can start building a stronger curriculum and culture, Delforge said.

She’s already taken steps to do that. Delforge revived child study and behavioral study teams in the teaching staff to help struggling students. Beyond that, she said, she’s working to integrate some of the Creative Classroom methods that she pioneered as the Fine Arts Curriculum Director at the Marblehead Public Schools.

This year, she said, the arts are being merged more with the other parts of the curriculum, citing as example a recent project in which the school’s Grade 4/5 students stepped — almost literally — into the shoes of immigrants coming into Ellis Island and the customs officials that met them there. The students came in costume, she said, and worked through the school like the rooms were, for example, luggage stations and a customs office. They played both sides, and came out with a deeper sense of what both immigrants and the receiving country felt during that time.

“That application meant much more (by) being felt, than being told,” Delforge said.

Two weeks before school opened, Delforge took two weeks with the school’s teaching staff and introduced them to new methods, like the broadening of the “responsive classroom” concept. She also arrived at the school with a mostly new staff, following a summer of extensive turnover.

“My job was to take people from previous years who had a tumultuous last year and respect what they bring to the table and at the same time start fresh with the new people and give a sense of direction, “ Delforge said.

Because of the turnover, she said, the school is also something of an open slate. And it allows her to take what she’s learned and set the charter school’s goals moving forward. She’s also had teachers set their own goals within a framework she created at the start of the school, and both she and the teachers will consistently monitor as the year goes forward.

“It’s a bit of a white canvas,” she said, “and I get to add my understanding and put that out for others.”

She added that she recognizes and understands budget difficulties, both at the charter and in the public school district, where parents and some officials continue to resist the charter school because they believe it steers money away from their schools and students.

But choice is important, she said, and worth pushing for.

“Parents should have choice,” Delforge said, “and I’m committed to that.”

Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or sfletcher@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.