The allegations cited by an undefined number of parents and teachers at the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School certainly deserve the highest priority of the school’s Board of Trustees. And the comments by school officials Monday indicate they are getting precisely that.
But while the board is also right to check into the validity of the parents’ petitions -- and there are clearly a number of questions surrounding those as well -- it’s also hard not to wonder about the board’s oversight of the school in general, especially some of the concerns that shine through the petitions regardless of where the board’s investigations lead. And all of this once again cries out for the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to, for one, stand up and take an active role in monitoring the operations and oversight of this school as it heads into what everyone should agree if, by far, its most important year.
That’s because, seven weeks before opening for the first time with a full kindergarten-through eighth-grade profile, and to what’s expected to be a full corps of 180 or more students, the charter school’s trustees still have not agreed on a new contract with their own executive director, Tony Blackman. He, despite a contract that expired more than two weeks ago, is still interviewing candidates for a director of education -- essentially a curriculum director -- though there is no public record of the board ever having approved a school restructuring for that position. And now, coming out of a close-door meeting Friday night, the trustees are looking into a series of allegations of wrongdoing on the part of Blackman -- charges which he understandably denies, with a veiled threat to legally challenge parents or teachers who have submitted the charges to the board in the first place.
Taking the last issue first, Blackman has every right to feel aggrieved if the accusations are indeed found to be untrue (see news story, Page 1). And there are, to put it mildly, all sorts of problems with the petitions -- notably the fact that the “teachers” who signed on didn’t eben have the courage to sign their names, signing as “Teacher #1,” “Teacher #2” and so on through a “Teacher #7.”
Yet, the fact that teachers felt the need to do that -- and the fact that parents who attended the Friday night meeting would talk only on the conditions of absolute anonymity for fear of retribution against them or their children at the school -- clearly conveys a climate of fear that cannot be a healthy learning environment. And that level of distrust -- whether a division over the ouster of former Head of School Jody Ziebarth, as some sources conveyed, or over other issues -- did not evolve overnight.
It’s to Board of Trustees Chairman James Caviston’s credit that he’s now vowed to improve communications between the board and school parents -- many of whom were a driving force behind the school’s 2010 opening in the first place. But the fact that this board has allowed its communication with the school’s own parents -- let alone its continued lack of transparency in dealing with state Open Meeting Law and public records access issues -- shows that the trustees are hopelessly out of their league, and clearly need stronger state oversight.
Whether the state’s Department of Education cares, of course, is quite another matter. Because frankly, there’s been no sign that’s the case -- just as when Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester an roughshod over the Board of Elementary and Secondary Ed in getting the charter approved in 2009. Since then, of course, the charter has proven to offer an important alternative to parents. And, for every parent’s or family’s complaint against Blackman or any other aspect of the school, there seem at least 10 parents who talk proudly of how their children now enjoy and are thriving in a school environment, far moreso than they ever had before. But the school also has to show significant progress on its next round of Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests -- taken this spring, with results due in September -- to show that it deserves the state support it gets.
While the charter school continues to present an important educational alternative for Gloucester and Cape Ann, it’s important that students, parents and community residents all believe that it is a truly viable alternative as well. And the issues now swirling around Blackburn Drive have raised some significant questions about that, under a Board of Trustees that seems too often under a cloud of its own.
It’s time the Department of Education provides the level of oversight this school truly needs. And that should start by the DOE itself interviewing teachers, parents, board members and even students to get to the root of the many issues at hand-- for the good of the parents, the staff, its leaders, the students, and, last but not least, the community as a whole.