, Gloucester, MA

December 12, 2012

Editorial: Charter should show city school leaders the need for change

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — The word that state Commissioner of Education Mitchell D. Chester will call for revoking Gloucester Community Arts Charter School’s charter at a state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting next week may signal the end for the public, independent school — a school that just completed its K-8 grade profile with the start of its third year in September.

While James Caviston, chairman of the school’s trustees, said he expects his board to appeal — and there is ample precedent for struggling charter schools to fill out their five-year charter — it would be surprising if the BESE dared to vote down a Chester recommendation, especially one as emphatic as this.

It’s disheartening to hear the tone of past and present city school officials and charter critics who — while rightfully noting that any charter students and families will be welcomed back into the city school system most of them chose to leave — aren’t even hinting that they’ve learned from this experience and are poised to move in new directions.

In making the case for revoking the charter, Chester cites the school’s constant financial struggles, due almost entirely to the fact that it has failed to meet enrollment projections used to set the school’s budget. He also cites a frightening level of staff turnover, which has certainly been a problem, fueled in large part by mid-year budget cuts that have hit the school in each of its first two years. He notes chaotic management, all too true under a board that has all too often shown none of the needed accountability or responsibility to oversee the school’s mission or operation. He also indicated that the school has failed to live up to the educational side of its charter, an obvious flaw given that a site visit this past October found that the school — in transition after Executive Director Tony Blackman cut his own position rather than face more in-year budget chaos — still did not have a defined curriculum.

But none of those issues directly apply to the school’s families and students, a number of whom showed improvement over the last year on the standardized Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests, particularly in English language arts.

Virtually anyone who has ever casually visited a GCACS classroom — something most of its harshest critics, pathetically, have never done — has been struck by the students’ genuine enthusiasm for their work and projects. And, for every student or parent who did not find the school effective, there are scores of students and families who have — such as Holly Amaral, whose 15-year-old son Corey “was going down a bad road” at O’Maley Middle School, yet “found himself” in the charter school and earned an award last spring for “courage and perseverance” in school.

City School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope doesn’t recognize that. In saying he views the entire charter venture “a terrible waste of time and money,” Pope seems to have forgotten something else: that the state reimbursed the city for the entire cost of the charter program during its first year, and provided diminishing percentages or reimbursement after that. That means the city schools received more than $1 million in aid without having to spend a dime of it on the students who had left for GCACS. In 2010, Gloucester’s city schools landed more than $400,000 over four years in federal “Race to the Top” money, due in large part to the presence of the charter school.

Gloucester’s city schools can make a good case that they have taken steps forward since some students and families chose to leave the district for the charter school, including some giant steps at O’Maley through its science, technology and math advancements and its new innovation school concept. Hopefully, if the charter fades to history, city school officials will see the need to explore their own alternative program – perhaps a district-run Horace Mann school, or a magnet elementary or middle school focusing on arts or some other discipline.

But as they try to convince students now attending the charter school to return to their city district schools, local educators and others should recognize that the charter has been anything but “a waste of time and money.” Gloucester Community Arts Charter School is providing education that has connected for children who made no such school connections previously, and has been a learning experience for all.

The initial reactions suggest that school officials may not have learned a thing. That would be the greatest waste of all.