GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

November 23, 2012

Charter faces new scrutiny by state

State chief sees challenges to 'viable, effective program"

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — GLOUCESTER — The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in its latest site visit to the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School, found a school with much more room for improvement.

And when the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education takes up discusson of Gloucester’s charter school during its Monday meeting in Malden, it will draw from a report issued by Commission of Education Mitchell D. Chester that the school “faces substantial challenges to its ability to implement a viable and effective school program.”

The Monday review will be the third such forum regarding the school’s progress, dating to eight conditions imposed on the school when it was placed on probation by Chester and the board in December 2010.

Of the eight conditions imposed in the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School, Chester wrote in his advance notice to the state board for Monday’s meeting, “Despite the school’s progress in meeting some of the conditions, evidence shows that (the school) faces substantial challenges to its ability to implement a viable and effective school program.” In addition, Chester added, “In May 2011, I stated that a major indicator for the school’s potential viability would be future enrollment numbers. This year’s first-quarter enrollment (123) is lower than last year’s (136) and far below the school’s reported pre-enrollment numbers.”

The drop in enrollment numbers this fall have come despite the fact that the school, now in its third full year, has added two new grades — a kindergarten and first grade. It also came after a tumultuous spring and summer that included wholesale staff changes, the controversial ouster of the GCAS Head of School in early June, and a series of complaints — never backed with any documentation — filed with the school’s Board of Trustees by a handful of parents calling for an investigation into alleged actions on the part of then-Executive Director Tony Blackman.

Because charter schools’ funding is based on per-pupil enrollment, the shortfall has forced additional school spending cuts – with Blackman ultimately deciding to cut his own position, turning the school’s operations over to GCACS Education Director Beth DelForge and the trustees in October.

”The dramatically lower-than-expected enrollment continues to threaten the school’s financial viability,” Chester said in his report to the state panel. “The financial strain has triggered the resignation of the school’s executive director and impedes the school’s ability to deliver an academic program as promised in its charter. MCAS data, particularly for mathematics, demonstrates an academic program that is ineffective and struggling.

”We will discuss this update as well as further action at our November meeting,” Chester concluded.

Though the state BESE plans to discuss the Gloucester school’s site visit and review, the board included no plans on the agenda to take any action at Monday’s meeting.

State school officials have acknowledged in the past the challenges faced by new charter schools, and that Massachusetts charters have generally been given the five-year length of the charter to establish successful programs. But any BESE meeting could theoretically include either probationary action or a revocation of the charter.

In the most recent site visit, state officials raised concern over the charter’s lack of curriculum documents. Though site visitors reported that a curriculum director had begun forming a curriculum by the time of their visit, school administrators and teachers reported that — except for some sample curriculum — school-wide mapping documents and classroom plans had not been created. The school’s director of education reported a goal of mapping out the curriculum by January or February 2013.

Also, while MCAS scores have improved at the school in 2012 in the English and language arts subject, mathematics scores remained weak, according to the review. The review reported the school has not developed a plan to address the past two years’ low mathematics scores on MCAS test at the school.

The findings, however, showed that reviewers found the arts had been thoroughly integrated at the charter school, with a visiting artists series, and music, dance and acting serving as part of class instruction.

”Stakeholders identified a strong commitment to three aspects of the charter: integration of the arts into the curriculum, connection to the local and global community, and individualized learning,” the report said.

Reeling in behavioral discipline, however, has been an issue, according to the review.

The review cited the children’s behavior as an issue hindering learning, saying that “off task and mildly disruptive behavior negatively impacted student learning” and teachers’ ability to effectively teach was “hampered” by “disorderly” classrooms. Reviewers pointed the fault at staff for not clearly outlining behavioral expectations.

Reviewers also indicated that classroom activities were not challenging enough to engage students and the hallway rules were lax, with students chatting and gathering in hallways while other students were in class.

”Rather than showing active engagement, such as participating in the task at hand, many students displayed behavior ... holding non-academic conversations, writing notes to each other, calling out, and heads down on desks,” the visitors found. “Teachers were not seen to respond, or respond effectively, to such behavior.”

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