We won’t know until sometime next month whether the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will let the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School carry on beyond this academic year — or really even finish it, given Tuesday’s comments by state Commissioner of Education Mitchell D. Chester (See news story, Page 1).
But given Chester’s damning remarks about the school, its lack of progress, and its never-ending struggle with enrollment and thus with its financial support, one thing is clear:
Officials with the Gloucester Public School District need to start preparing for how they would welcome back students and parents who – for a variety of reasons — chose the public and independent GCACS over a city school system that many felt did not adequately meet their wants or needs in the past. And those same officials should be aware that, if indeed the state does pull the plug on Gloucester Charter Arts, they cannot fairly expect these students and parents to return to “business as usual” and programs in which they chose not to take part in the past.
That prospect became all too real Tuesday, when — while pushing back any action regarding Gloucester Charter Arts’ future to a BESE meeting in December — Chester let it be known that, given the latest state site review and a host of other issues, a “revocation” of the school’s charter would be on the proverbial table, in his “realm of possibilities for my recommendation.”
Indeed, while Chester and board officials have been willing in the past to give the Gloucester school the usual five years to sort out any growing pains, his finding that, in its third year, the school is still developing a curriculum document and grappling with other issues expected in a “first-year school” is particularly troubling. And the perpetual lack of accountability and any oversight on the part of a badly overmatched Board of Trustees – spotlighted now by a questionable $75,000 loan and $2,500 loan fee taken on by former Executive Director Tony Blackman without any board role — certainly doesn’t spur any confidence that the board has learned from its myriad past mistakes.
All of that suggests that the GCACS is on very, very thin ice as winter approaches. And while it’s hard to imagine the state would shut the school down with a 60-day revocation notice in mid-year — as it could — the preparations for that happening have to at least be on the drawing board.
Gloucester’s school leaders have taken significant steps forward over the last two years — most notably at O’Maley Middle School, where Principal Debra Lucey, innovative science program backed by the Gloucester Education Fund, and a new “Innovation School” sought and backed by the school’s own teachers and Superintendent of Schools Richard Safier. And that would clearly be a welcoming environment for students who have studied under an innovative and alternative format at GCACS.
But should city schools look toward converting an elementary school into a school with an arts-based focus — which clearly has drawn students to the charter school? Should city school officials look to another discipline — perhaps math and/or science — for a magnet school on the elementary level? What other steps can city school officials explore to help kids learn better — especially kids whose parents feel that they have succeeded far better at the charter school than they had in the past, and there are dozens who feel that way.
All of those questions, and no doubt more, should be on the table, even as the charter school’s future rests on the table of the state’s Board of Education. And both city and state officials should realize that turning these kids and parents back to the schools and programs from which they came isn’t going to cut it — and shouldn’t.
Even if it folded tomorrow, the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School has seemingly helped to spur city school improvements.
Let’s hope that, if that prospect becomes reality next year, or sooner, the city’s schools are ready to take new giant steps forward, as well.