GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 10, 2013

Charter abruptly shuts its doors

Fiscally strapped school abruptly shuts down yesterday

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — GLOUCESTER — Teachers untacked posters from walls, kids bundled in scarves waved mitten-handed good-byes to friends, and parents exchanged email addresses in the hallways of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School Wednesday as students left the building for the final time in an abrupt closure of the financially insolvent school.

The school’s Board of Trustees last week had already voted to prematurely close the school at the end of classes this Friday. But trustees sent two emails to parents Tuesday night, according to a number of parents.

One parent said the first email suggested the parents find spots for their children to start attending public schools or state approved schools as of Thursday. The next email said the school would have to close its doors Wednesday with the early dismissal after an 11:30 a.m. assembly for students.

Parents and the estimated 40 students remaining enrolled at the school gathered for the going away assembly that included presentations from kids in each grade and students pairing up to discuss what they will miss about the school, a fun experience they had during the year, and something they look forward to at their new schools.

”I’ll just miss the fact that everyone can be themselves here,” said Shannon Kelly, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at the school who will attend O’Maley Middle School beginning today.

Board of Trustees Chairman James Caviston told the Times Wednesday afternoon that a final vote by the Board of Trustees on a shutdown of the school would not come until the board met Wednesday night, but acknowledged that yesterday marked the public, independent school’s final session. With a continued declining enrollment, the school is essentially insolvent and cannot meet payroll or cover any more days’ pay for staff, according to Caviston.

At least one teacher was laid off as recently as Tuesday and several others were let go as of Sunday amid the school’s financial collapse, sources told the Times. A few teachers, some of the trustees and Head of School Beth Delforge were at the school Wednesday.

”You really can’t have a good school environment for the students with so much change and anxiety going on,” Caviston said.

Even in surrendering the school’s charter under pressure last month, the GCACS trustees had expected to keep the school open through the end of its third school year, as part of bargain reached with the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. But enrollment further declined in December and last week, resulting in a reduced money flow to the school from the state, which provides funding to charter schools based on a per-pupil basis. On top of that, a lower line of credit from outside lenders prevented the school from gathering enough funds to remain open through June, according to school trustees.

Jay Featherstone, a board trustee, said that at the start of the year, before the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education began to threaten revocation, it seemed the school had been on a path toward success. But many trustees say those threats derailed the school.

“This year, we were really ready to be a good, normal school,” Featherstone said. “The irony was we were on our way.”

This year had marked the first time the arts school had added a kindergarten and first grade, completing its full K-through-Grade 8 profile. And, with a number of improved student test scores from last spring, school officials were confident prior to the state’s November threat of charter revocation that the school would carry out the five-year time frame that was chartered and usually recognized by the state’s Department of Education.

But the bottom fell out quickly amid new enrollment shortfalls and the accompanying budgeting issues, which led then-Executive Director Tony Blackman to cut his own job in October, though he remained on the payroll as a consultant and trustee.

At a Jan. 2 meeting, trustees said they found it inevitable that the school would need to close earlier than the June date they bargained for when they signed an agreement that the state would fund the school monthly, based on enrollment. The trustees at that time chose this Friday as the closing date, calculating that as the latest date they could remain open to without having to lay off teachers and staff. But the school’s full financial insolvency became evident on Tuesday, necessitating the sudden Wednesday shutdown, sources told the Times.

Caviston called the going-away assembly “an important part of closure” for the students who will flow into new schools today, some transitioning to Gloucester Public Schools, some to Rockport schools and others to private schools.

Eighth-grader Daniel Robichaud will find himself at the Rockport Middle School tomorrow. Robichaud said he has no nerves about shifting schools, but will miss the comfort he found at the charter school.

”It was a great school. It was like a second home rather than a school, really,” Robichaud said.

Kindergartners and first-graders lined up Wednesday to proudly present pictures drawn illustrating their favorite moments at the school.

Second- and third-graders wrote down their favorite moments and read them aloud. Fourth-graders made a poster book of their memories and fifth-graders gathered items for a time capsule and presented and explained objects including a puzzle with each piece assigned to a student and decorated by that student, representing a community of individuals, one student said. The middle school grouped up to re-enact their favorite moments at the charter school, depicting a dance, a greeting game, and a chair race with two teachers piloting wheeled chairs across the room.

And, at the close of the assembly, students sang “Hello, Goodbye” by the Beatles, with parents joining in on the chorus.

Children sitting cross-legged swayed and swung their arms around pals.

Parents seated in chairs around the room, some teary eyed, sang the familiar “You say goodbye, I say hello, I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.”

”The saddest part, is it’s just like the words from that song,” said Trustee Gordon Baird. “It’s so fast — and most people don’t know why.”

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