By Marjorie Nesin
---- — As the clock ticks toward the mid-December day when the state’s education board will decide the next step for Gloucester’s charter school — with charter revocation being a possibility — a petition to keep the school open is being circulated, capturing more than 400 signatures in less than two days.
After an October site review of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School — and a damning report citing low MCAS scores in math, a continuing fiscal struggle, subpar enrollment and high teacher turnover — Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester earlier this week said he was reconsidering his initial decision to grant the school five years to pull everything together. He said he would be reluctant to “subject” its students to more time within the “struggling” school.
A pro-charter school Internet petition, created on the website signon.org, immediately went up and the signatures started pouring in. The petition calls on Chester, legislators, the state’s Secretary of Education, and Mayor Carolyn Kirk to preserve the charter school’s five-year term. The petition says the community will lose an asset if the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education revokes the charter at its Dec. 18 meeting.
“This would mean over 120 children and their parents will be denied the choice they made to attend this innovative school against their will,” the petition, started by former chairman and founding charter school board member Peter Van Ness and the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization treasurer, Vickie Van Ness.
Charter parents, school teachers and board members said the growing number of signatures on the Internet petition shows just how real the school’s support is.
“I’ve noticed support coming from a few places that even surprised me,” Peter Van Ness said, noting a preschool director who had commented that she refers the parents of her students to the charter, as well as relatives of charter students and people who have benefited from charter schools in their own communities.
Though the site review of the school presented financial issues, low scores on state math tests, and a lacking curriculum among other issues, parents hoped their support of the school might help emphasize some of the charter’s assets, including providing a place for creative students with non-traditional learning styles who’ve struggled in more traditional school environments.
“We are still getting the benefits that we were expecting to get when we enrolled our children,” despite the problems, Van Ness said.
“We hope that particularly the Board of Education and Secretary (of Education in the state) Paul Reville get a sense of how much support there is for this school, because they’re the ones who can really make a difference,” Van Ness said.
Shay Cajolet is director of integrated art at the school, one aspect of the school the site review touted as having made strides.
“I love working there. I absolutely love working there,” Cajolet said. “It is a fantastic model of a multi-age learning environment with the community and arts integration as their focus for learning.”
Cajolet, who has been on board since the school’s second year and volunteered at the charter before her employment there, said she is confident the school will reach its goals.
“It is a school that needs to have its full five years to show how good this model can work and to flourish.”
Travis Korthas, chairman of the school’s parent-teacher organization whose kindergarten-age daughter attends the school, signed the petition, too. Korthas said parents are nervous, but still fully supportive. If the charter were revoked, Korthas said, the decision would be hard for parents and students to swallow.
“That’d be tough news to hear,” Korthas said. “You know it’s always about the kids, too, and I know my daughter loves it there.”
James Caviston, chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees, had made immediate plans to rally parents to display their support after the state board Tuesday delivered harsh news for the charter. Caviston said showing a widespread support for the school and working to fix issues that arose in the site plan review could help the school pull through.
“There’s a lot of reasons for people to respond to this,” Caviston said of the petition. “It’s important that people know that this is a terrific asset to the community.”
Though the Board of Trustees has not met since the state board’s Tuesday discussion, Caviston hopes to pull together a board meeting before the one scheduled for Dec. 12.
Three or four of the board members were present at a meeting between school Director of Education Beth DelForge and parents Wednesday. DelForge spoke with parents, providing advice on discussing the school’s status with their children. Then DelForge spoke to students at the school’s regular morning assembly Thursday, explaining that they need not worry about the school, in a manner that Caviston called “indicative” of the school’s style.
“The kids shouldn’t feel the stress of this,” Caviston said. “There’s got to be a way to preserve a good culture of learning in spite of everything that’s going on outside.”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3451, or firstname.lastname@example.org.