GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 11, 2012

Chairman says charter school will appeal revocation

State board slated to vote on revocation Tuesday

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — The chairman of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School said Tuesday he expects to be authorized by his board to appeal an expected vote by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to revoke its charter.

The state board meets Tuesday and is expected to follow the advice of Mitchell D. Chester, articulated in a nine-page, single-spaced memo last Friday, to revoke the charter, which would end the experiment in charter schooling in Gloucester at the end of the 2013 spring term, and return about 100 students to the public schools.

The Gloucester board would have 15 days following formal written notice of any decision to revoke by the state to file its notice of appeal, according to J.C. Considine, spokesman for the state board.

In a telephone interview, charter school board Chairman James Caviston described Chester’s move against the school as “unprecedented and unwarranted.” Except for egregious behavior or manifest failure, Caviston said the state’s policy has wisely been to give charter schools five years, the extent of the grant of the charter, to prove themselves; Gloucester Community Arts has only been open three years.

“This is unprecedented because we are in the middle of the five-year plan, and it is unwarranted because we don’t fit the model” for schools that have their charters revoked within the first five years, Caviston said.

Considine said the state twice has revoked charters within the five years allowed, once in 1998, and again in 2004 with the decision to close the Roxbury Charter High School.

Seventy-seven charter schools are operating in the commonwealth, he said, and four charters over the years have been revoked.

The Times was unable to learn details about the causes for the 1998 decision to revoke a first five-year charter; however, minutes of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education from May 24, 2005, reflect a decision against rescinding the vote to revoke Roxbury Charter High School’s charter, which was based on “looming insolvency, governance chaos, and persistent educational deficiency.”

The minutes reflect the board’s decision to reconsider only if the school ‘“caught lightning in a bottle,” in the phrase of then board Chairman James Peyser. “In the intervening months,” the notes continue to quote Peyser, “the school has established some degree of organizational stability — with the help and intervention of DOE — and it has begun to plan for the future. While this is commendable, it does not constitute lightning in a bottle,” he is quoted as saying.

The board declined to rescind its vote, and the charter board appealed unsuccessfully.

On the Gloucester charter school website, posted since Chester issued a memo on Nov. 17 with a forewarning of the revocation recommendation, there has been a petition with the “demand” that Chester and the state board not revoke the charter and “preserve” the five-year term given to the school in its initial charter, dated Nov. 17, 2009.

Gloucester Community Arts Charter School opened in September 2010, and now has 123 students — only 74 percent of the least ambitious enrollment projections by its business manager last spring — which has generated $1.32 million in Chapter 70 (school aid) from the state Legislature.

“The dramatically lower than expected enrollment continues to threaten the school’s financial viability,” Chester wrote in his Nov. 16 memo which presaged his decision last Friday.

In Friday’s memo, Chester’s memo acknowledged that the Gloucester charter school’s board had done enough to work its way to end an initial probation, ending Dec. 21, 2010, and has met six of eight new mandates, albeit not all by given deadline, according to a Nov. 26 update. But Chester concluded that the Gloucester charter school “is no longer a viable organization” based on “poor academic results, a lack of fidelity to its charter, high rates of staff turnover, low enrollment, a weak academic program and fiscal instability.”

“While most of the people involved in chartering, reviewing, supporting and opposing (Gloucester Community Arts Charter School) have been focused on finances, procedures and test scores, the teachers and their students have been focused on learning,” said Peter Van Ness, a charter parent and early advocate of the alternative to the public schools. “GCA students feel safe, energized, motivated and have discovered a love of learning that they never felt before. And it shows, not only in vastly improved MCAS scores in ELA (English Language Arts), but also in their work, on their faces and by the fact that they look forward to going to school.

“Plus, we’ve seen proof that innovation has caught on in the district, with improved student achievement there, too,” said Van Ness, who along with other parents lauded the “bullying-free” environment on the campus at Blackburn Industrial Park.

Corey Amaral, 15, who attended the charter school for two years before graduating to the high school, is cited as a success story. At O’Maley, “he was going down a bad road,” but found himself at the charter, and won the Blackburn Award for courage and perseverance, his mother, Holly Amaral, said.

The charter school was born in controversy; Chester was urged Gov. Deval Patrick’s secretary of education to overlook a negative opinion of the school’s prospects by the state charter advisory board and push the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to give Gloucester a charter based on a desire to burnish the governor’s reputation as a charter school supporter.

The School Committee, then Superintendent Christopher Farmer and the city’s legislative delegation — state Sen. Bruce Tarr and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante — and a cadre of public school parents, who filed suit against the legitimacy of the charter, saw the charter as either illegitimate or a force that diffused educational energy from the district’s struggling public schools.

Still a Gloucester resident, though now superintendent of the Triton Regional School District, Farmer said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he sees Chester’s decision as a sign he is “acting with the best of intentions toward the children of the charter school.”

Richard Gaines may contacted at 978-283-7000 x3463, or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.