GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 4, 2013

Parents aim to ease charter children's adjustment

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — The Gloucester Community Arts Charter School’s unexpected early closure, scheduled for next Friday, Jan. 11, has left parents grasping for answers and reaching for help, unsure of how to break the news to their children and anxious at how their children, especially those with special needs, will adjust to the sudden change.

Frank Gentile has begun wondering and worrying and grasping for a new schooling solution for his son, who has Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD, which means the eighth-grader has trouble acclimating to change and difficulty understanding how to react in social situations. Gentile waited to tell Jordan about the school’s predicament until he was certain the charter would be closing, knowing Jordan would grow anxious and stressed about the coming change.

“From a parent’s eye, it’s really got our stomach in knots,” Gentile said. “It breaks my heart to see him obsess about this. This is just expediting some of his fears.”

Parents had expected the school to remain open through June, after the charter’s board made a December deal with the state to receive state funding monthly then give up the charter at the end of the school year. But, enrollment began to drop soon after the deal was struck, and Wednesday the state told school officials the charter school would receive no state funding for January, causing the trustees to pick Jan. 11 as the closing date, according to James Caviston, chairman of the school’s trustees.

The original June closing date had been chosen to avoid disrupting students’ academic year, and that extra time and smoother transition would have made a world of difference for parents like himself, Gentile said. Gentile said the previously scheduled closing would have created time for he and his son to visit the public high school before enrolling, allowing Jordan to meet the students and acclimate to the school.

“We could have geared him up,” Gentile said. “Now, we can help him socially in our household but when he goes out into that atmosphere, it’s hard to know how he’ll get treated and how he’ll fit in.”

Many parents, having received news of the closure late Wednesday night or Thursday morning, have yet to make decisions about their childrens’ academic futures and are unsure of how to proceed.

School leaders in the Gloucester Public School District, however, have assured the community that they are prepared to take on the students, and Superintendent Richard Safier will attend a meeting for charter parents at the school Tuesday night to help explain the transition procedures.

In the meantime, charter parents have lashed out at the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, questioning why its commissioner, Mitchell D. Chester, would write a letter to parents on Dec. 21 saying plainly that the school would remain open until June 30, and then allow the school to fall under water.

A spokesman for the department, J.C. Considine, said it respects the charter trustees’ decision, but the state department did not tell the school it must close and the state was unable to provide extra assistance to the school.

“I’m not sure what they would be looking for us to do,” said Considine. “At the end of the day I think this was largely a matter of enrollment that was failing and pretty serious concerns about the financial state of the school.”

Charter trustees also laid some blame on the state department, pointing to the state education commissioner’s advisory to the board to revoke the school’s charter and its negative review of the school as a cause for declining enrollment.

Caviston said parents began to scramble to find spots in other area schools because, hearing the state department’s opinions, the parents grew afraid that the school would close and their children would have no place to go.

“Had we been able to maintain probably a higher student population and enrollment, we might be able to work something out,” Caviston said. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that people will leave (if you tell them the school will close.)”

Caviston said it “would have been great” if the state could have provided more assistance to Gloucester Community Arts Charter School, and called the school’s closing a “tragedy.”

“This is just a really tough time for everybody. No one imagined we’d be here. The incredible sense of community at this school has really been a great example of what can be or what could be if people are willing to make the changes and make something like this happen,” Caviston said. “I’m still at disbelief that we’re in the situation we’re in.”

But some parents said no matter how unexpected the changes have been, communication with parents has been lacking, with some parents getting their information from local media before hearing it from the school.

Amy Master said she is angry, not at the trustees’ decisions on behalf of the school, but at the way the trustees have released information.

Master said she first received notification that the school might close early — then with an estimated date in February — as she was celebrating Christmas Eve, and, Master said, the news upset her fifth-grade daughter and her daughter’s friends, too.

“I know one family whose children were just crying all night,” Master said. “It’s extremely sad, very, very stressful ... They could have done this in a much more humane manner.”

Master said she feels lucky her daughter will likely adjust easily to a new school, but she resents that her daughter may be separated from friends.

David Markowitz’s 6-year-old son attends kindergarten at the charter school and has never gone to any other school. Markowitz said it will be difficult too for his son to move to a new school, away from friends, teachers and a building that is familiar to him.

“I’m totally dismayed, shocked, angered, bewildered ... I don’t know what word to use, but I feel robbed,” Markowitz said. “My son doesn’t even have a school to go to, and he loved his school, loves his school, but the doors are going to close on him.”

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3451, or mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.