The annual report filed by the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School with the state’s Department of Education last week sounded a number of optimistic notes — most notably that preliminary results from the school’s MCAS tests suggest improvements of up to 19 percent points in the number of students who tested as being “proficient” in English language arts.
But other aspects of the report — especially its enrollment projections — are already raising red flags as the school prepares to embark on a critical third year less essentially four weeks from tomorrow. And both school and state officials should do all they can to get a firm grip on the issue before the GCACS once again faces the kind of budget calamity with which leaders have had to wrestle in each of the school’s first two years.
As of today, the charter school — completing its academic buildout next month with the addition of a kindergarten/first grade program and thus reaching its K-8 grade profile — is budgeted through the state to handle 180 students, drawing a little more than $11,000 for each. The annual report, meanwhile, notes a “pre-enrollment” of 212. So the school is running the risk of being overcrowded, right?
Wrong. That’s hardly the problem.
Executive Director Tony Blackman readily admits that officials won’t know how many students the charter school will really draw until the new year begins, and likely for a few weeks after that. But, for each of its first two years, the school’s enrollment has come up roughly 30 percent short of projections.
Since the school’s budget — unlike the budget for the Gloucester Public School District, which lost more than 25 percent of its enrollment in the last 10 years — is based solely on per-pupil funding, the charter’s enrollment shortfalls have triggered 30 percent budget cuts in each of the first two years, as its annual report notes, with both coming after the school year began. And that has contributed to significant in-year staff cuts and turnover rates that — again, according to the annual report — show the school has retained just over half its personnel (55 percent).
Whether school officials want to admit it or not, that prospect is already looming for the coming year — especially given Saturday’s Times story reporting that 10 students who attended the charter school this past year have already enrolled back at Gloucester’s O’Maley Middle School.
Even if there are no other students leaving the charter, as Blackman says, Gloucester school officials also note they’ve had no requests for transferring records from city schools to the charter, either.
Considering that some two dozen of last year’s charter students left via graduation from its initial eighth-grade class, the loss of even 10 students back into O’Maley would seem to leave the school at or just below 100 returning students.
That means at least 80 new students will have to be on their way in to meet the state’s budget figure. And it’s frankly incomprehensible that anywhere near that many students will be heading up to Blackburn Drive in September to launch their school careers in the charter school’s new kindergarten or first grade, even allowing for a few late transfers in to other grades.
Look, school enrollments can always be in a state of flux, especially at the start of a new academic year. That’s why the state doesn’t even look to certify school’s enrollments until Oct. 1.
But given the financial implications on a charter school that cannot meet its budgeted enrollment, and given the GCACS’ experience during its first two years, it seems essential for the state and charter officials to take a fresh look at this school’s legitimate enrollment prospects, and for the school to hiring accordingly.
Another year of charter school staff cuts and turnover won’t be good for anyone — especially the kids.