The Gloucester Community Arts Charter School — born from a botched approval process, opened amid disputes over no-bid contracts and occupancy permits then finally cleared to continue in a state Department of Education probationary hearing in December — faces another key step along the road to its future today.
And the state's embattled Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has reasons to do a double-take or two when considering the recommendations of Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester.
For, while citing significant flaws in the charter's first-year operations, Chester — who's actions have made a running joke out of enforcing any approval rules, regulations, and conditions — has recommended that the school be allowed to go forward for a second year.
But despite those contradictions — and despite all his missteps in the past — in this case, Chester has it absolutely right.
For all the political ranting and raving about budget impacts, all the questions about the charter school's lack of transparency, all the questions still lingering — even through a parental lawsuit — from the state's 2009 approval, there is one not-so-little factor that neither Chester, the state board, nor even the Gloucester School Committee should overlook.
That's the fact that parents of nearly 200 students — more than double the current charter school enrollment — are looking to attend the independent, public school in the fall. And while critics have raised questions about the school's effectiveness, most parents whose children are attending GCACS in its inaugural year swear by it.
To pull the rug out from under them at this stage of the game — and force Gloucester's GCAS students back into schools they don't want to attend — would be a betrayal of those students and parents who have sought and are seeking a viable alternative education for their children.
Despite Chester's findings, the hearing comes at a good time for the charter school, its leaders and its backers.
The school's trustees — admittedly months after the deadline, according to one of the state's December conditions for lifting its probation — have now hired Cambridge Friends School Principal Jody Ziebarth as the GCACS' new "head of school," essentially the principal's position here. And they have named Mary Scofield — a veteran educator who taught in Gloucester Schools and has served on boards at Pingree and Brookwood school, as their new program coordinator.
It's also important to note that the charter is expanding — as planned all along — to include Grades 2 and 8 next year, accounting for a least some part of the expected enrollment jump. And Chester's report to the board today will note that — due to shaky enrollment data last fall — the charter school's budget, based solely on enrollment, was virtually set up to fail from the start. The state's tuition budget for the coming year is based on 196 students, and that should far better the school and its students in the year ahead.
Are there questions? You'd better believe it.
The school is not meeting its mission on a number of fronts, according the Chester's report, with "deficiencies" in special ed that have been a bugaboo from the start. And while the school boasts an innovative curriculum — with an arts base crossing all disciplines of learning — there's no means yet of documenting how students are achieving. That won't be known until their first round of MCAS scores are assessed later in the year.
But shutting the school down without waiting for those scores or giving the students a chance to show its strengths would be a true injustice to all — including current city school students, teaches and parents who could all learn from the charter's innovations if they prove successful.
There will no doubt be all sorts of facts and numbers tossed around at today's state board hearing ion Malden — dollar figures, unmet goals, missed deadlines, unresolved building issues. But the one number that should get the board's primary attention above all is the number 196 — the number of students seeking to attend the school next year, and have every right to be able to pursue that alternative.
For all the Gloucester Charter Arts questions, allowing it to open for a second year is the only viable answer.