By Marjorie Nesin
---- — The state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education discussed only rendering a future decision regarding the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School Tuesday, but the state’s commissioner made clear that when, that decision time comes next month, “revocation (of the school’s charter) is very clearly in (the) realm of possibilities.”
After an October site review of the school — and a damning report citing low MCAS scores in math, a continuing fiscal struggle, subpar enrollment and high teacher turnover — Commissioner Mitchell D. Cheste said he was reconsidering his initial decision to grant the school five years to pull everything together and “subject” the charter school’s students to more time within the “struggling” school.
“It’s not just the report on conditions that alarms me, it’s some of the additional analysis,” said Chester, speaking at Tuesday’s special meeting of the state’s BESE.
“In virtually every aspect of the school operation they are struggling,” he said.
If the board decides to revoke the school’s charter, said Chester, the school will likely remain open through the end of the school year, so as not to interrupt the students’ learning.
“I can’t overstate how concerned I am about where this school is at this point,” Chester said. “At this point in their development cycle, they’re at a place in the third year that we might expect to see in a first-year school.”
The board will convene again in mid-December, and at that time decide on the next course of action for the charter after receiving a recommendation from the commissioner.
James Caviston, the chair of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School’s Board of Trustees, said he was blown away by the commissioner’s comments, and was “very disappointed” with the outcome of the meeting.
“This is not what we expected at all,” Caviston said, sitting in a folding chair next to Tony Blackman, former Executive Director and current trustees board member. “There’s a lot of negative spin.”
The pair called the low MCAS scores in mathematics an “endemic” problem among Massachusetts schools, but recognized the results had impacted the Gloucester school’s review negatively, and suggested former teachers may have negatively impacted those scores.
“Math and science results aren’t where they need to be,” Blackman said. “Those teachers aren’t back.”
Still, the two pointed to the school’s above-average English and Language Arts MCAS scores, full compliance with Special Education outlines, award of a $200,000 line of credit from a regional bank, and furthered communication with charter students’ parents, through newsletters and open houses, as signs of progress. Plus Caviston reiterated a comment by Chester that starting a school is not an easy task.
“We are tackling the problems that have come up ... You don’t just hit the ground running with any start up,” Caviston said. “The road to successful innovation is a messy path.”
Paul Reville, Gov. Deval Patrick’s Secretary of Education, told the board that, though the school has had a “number of disappointing characteristics,” he pointed out the intensity of some opposition to the school.
“Another reality is this school’s facing opposition from certain people in that community that for a long time have done everything possible to see it fail,” Reville said. “We’ll never know, in the absence of that kind of implacable opposition to the school, if they would have succeeded.”
Other State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members, however, expressed disappointment with the school officials’ reactions to the review — especially pointing to Beth DelForge, the school’s new director of education who spoke on behalf of the school’s work toward creating curriculum, and who has taken the reins from Blackman after he cut his own executive director’s job this fall amid a renewed budget crisis.
“It distresses me that Beth DelForge, in talking about the school’s position, did not mention anything about math except to say we need to do better in math and science,” said state board member Penny Noyce, who said she would support revoking the school’s charter.
State Rep. Ann Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, also said in public comment that she felt it was time for the charter school to bow out.
“Generally we look at a five-year period to give a charter school an opportunity to come into its fruition and to come into its being,” Ferrante said. “However ... I don’t know the remainder of the balance of the five years is realistic for this charter school to overcome its challenges. I’m not even sure that an additional five years would allow the board of this charter school the opportunity to fulfill its obligations.”
Peter Dolan, a Gloucester public schools parent and the lead plaintiff in a legal battle against the commissioner, called on the commissioner and the state board to stamp out the charter school, saying the board’s prior probation and formal scoldings had not achieved their goal.
“We see what looks like the enabling of an addict — somehow forgiving for each instance of progressively more destructive behavior,” Dolan said. “And this board is on its way to being the judge who kept letting the drunk driver off the hook.”
Still, Gloucester Community Arts Charter School officials said they have made plans to “ensure the school’s viability and success” and will prepare for the state board’s December decision by enlisting charter school parents for support.
“We’re going to have the parents show whatever support they can ... We want (the state education board) to know the kids are engaged,” Caviston said. “We are providing an education, so we need to get as much proof of that as possible.”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.