MALDEN — The Gloucester Community Arts Charter School is clear to open for a third year, at least as far as the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is concerned.
The state board did not take a vote or any other action regarding the charter school at its regularly scheduled meeting here Tuesday.
That clears the way for the school to continue into the 2012-2013 school year, while facing another possible review in the fall.
Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said that, though he has substantial concerns about the school, Gloucester Community Arts Charter School officials have met six of the eight conditions the board had set for it last year. He recommended that the board take no action on the school and allow it to open next year, while noting that the department would continue keeping a close eye on the charter school and its performance.
Jeff Wulfson, the department's associate commissioner, said the board hasn't — except in rare cases — revoked a school's charter before the end of what has become a standard five-year precedent. State guidelines give charter schools a five-year window to start and work kinks out of the program.
Wulfson cautioned, however, that while the school has made progress, if the charter school were at the end of its term right now, he would not recommend its charter be renewed.
But one year's performance, good or bad, doesn't make a trend, said Marlon Davis, of the Education Department's Charter School Office. Davis was part of the department's November site visit to Gloucester Community Arts, and said the school's staff and administration are responding to state concerns and will be on a better footing next year.
"There have certainly been other schools who have had rocky beginnings, and we feel we don't have enough of a track record to make that call," said Wulfson.
Some board members asked if the charter school's problems were more than typical first-year charter school issues. The review was the state board's first since Gloucester Community Arts students posted woefully low scores on the state's standardized Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests, and the first since the school's enrollment, while double its first year, came in some 60 students below projections this fall, bringing new cuts in the school's per-pupil budget allocation.
"I don't remember in my time on the board (a charter school) showing such a poor review the first year and a half," said Harneen Chernow, a member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Chernow said she wondered why the board wasn't voting to put the charter school on probation, given the site visit report's concerns about its academic standards, and its MCAS results. The school's Board of Trustees, she noted, has run through four chairmen, started this year in a financial hole, and has faced layoffs. The department's site visit report, she said, doesn't inspire confidence.
Chester, however, said that, while he's willing to keep the board up to date on the school's progress, he doesn't want to keep scrutinizing the school on such a tight schedule.
"I'm reluctant to have a moratorium on this school every three or four months," he said.
Since last year, the board has met three times to review the school. Last December, the board removed its probation, and placed on it a set of eight conditions. It also reviewed the school in May, five months prior to Tuesday's hearing.
Continuing reviews at this pace, said Chester, probably is warranted. The charter school, he said, isn't exemplary, but it's been responsive.
Davis also said the department should allow the school time to address the state's concerns.
"I caution the angst around one year of extremely low performance," he said.
State board member Gerald Chertavian said the continuing controversy swirling around the school and its future has affected performance. But the school's leadership, with such a small number of students, should now be able to show real progress.
"It's not surprising to me that they're having the challenges they're having," she said.
The school's performance drew some to ask the board to close its doors.
Marilyn Segal, executive director of the Citizens for Public Schools, asked the state board to consider closing the school after this year. The charter school, she said, hasn't shown improvements in much of what the board wanted in May. She also cited the school's poor MCAS scores this year as a reason for shutting the school down.
"The school was at or near the bottom of the state in every category," she said.
Gloucester School Committee member Roger Garberg also asked the board to take corrective action against the charter school. While Chester says the school needs more time, Garberg said that Gloucester parents need to know whether the school is actually viable.
Aside from the state reviews, Gloucester Community Arts also faces a lawsuit filed by 15 Gloucester city school parents who claim that its charter was wrongly granted, and that the school's continued operation wrongly draws funding away from their own children's public school education.
Tony Blackman, the charter school's executive director, conceded Tuesday that the school faces financial, special education and achievement problems.
But he added that, while those challenges are common in charter schools, Gloucester Community Arts takes them seriously and is moving quickly to address them.
The school, he noted, has hired a head of school, an arts integration director, revamped the special education staff, and started remediation in areas where students, by a wide margin, scored less than proficient on the MCAS tests.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3447 or email@example.com. Follow him @StevenGDT on Twitter.