Charting a course for disaster

By John Monfredo, Worcester School Committee member

In a recent statement from lawmakers of Beacon Hill, it was suggested that the cities and towns could be in for a 10% reduction in state aid, thus a reduction in chapter 70 money (money for education), due to the nation’s financial crisis and recession.

Worcester is in danger of losing additional revenue, if the Massachusetts Department of Education approves the application of a charter school wishing to locate in Worcester.  The Spirit of Knowledge Academy Charter School applied to locate a grade 6 – 12 school and take students from Worcester, Oxford and Leicester.  The enrollment capacity would be 585 students.   Worcester has already lost more than $15 million to the two other charter schools in Worcester.  This proposal would siphon additional moneys from the Worcester Public Schools and present a major revenue problem for the 24,000 students in our schools.   For every child enrolling in a charter school, the Worcester Public Schools loses $10,825.

A public meeting on this proposal took place, just recently, at the Worcester Public Library where a committee from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education heard testimony.  The state board will decide in February whether to grant a charter to the Spirit of Knowledge Academy.

The Spirit of Knowledge Academy Charter School’s mission, is to graduate students with a solid academic foundation in math, science, technology and humanities, prepare them for college and a gratifying career, and have then create value in their own lives, their communities and society.
Members supporting a NO vote spoke about the many flaws in this proposal and the reason why the school is not needed in Worcester.   Many felt that the school timing was not justifiable, due to the lack of financial resources. Opponents also saidhat is proposed already exists in the Worcester Public School.

Interim Superintendent for the Worcester Public School. Deirdre Loughlin led the charge as to why an additional charter school in our city would not be in the best interest of the city.  She brought with her staff, parents and students to speak on the many outstanding programs taking place in our schools.  

A parade of speakers spoke about the Engineering Pipeline Line at Doherty High School, the Goddard Scholars program at Sullivan and South High schools, University Park Campus School, the Technical School and the Robotics program, the various Advanced Placement courses offered, the arts program in the Burncoat Quadrant, the humanities program and the U.S. History Grant in which the schools collaborate with the following museums and colleges: the antiquarian society, Assumption College, Worcester Historical Museum and Old Sturbridge Village Museum.  In addition, all of the programs mentioned above have partners with colleges and universities, community agencies, and cultural institutions.

Dr. Loughlin also spoke about her concern about the percentage of SPED and ELL children that would attend the charter school.  Analyzing the 2007 -2008 data from the Advance Math and Science Academy Charter School of Marlboro (Spirit of Knowledge Academy mirrors the Marlboro School), there were no limited English Proficient students; only 1.9 percent were low income and only 5.2 percent were Special Needs students.

The charter school mentioned that they will have a character education curriculum. Dr. Loughlin was quick to point out that Worcester has had this concept since 1993 and new themes are selected each year.

Another flaw in their proposal mentioned by Dr. Loughlin was the after-school programs.  The wording was vague for it included games and rest time. In addition, there was no explanation as to whether students had to pay a fee and if all families could  afford it.

Most damaging to their proposal was the finance and the ratio of administrators to teachers.  Top heavy with administrators, for there was 15 administrators to 47.1 teachers or approximately 1:3.  As compared to Worcester with a ratio of 1:15.

Dr. Stephen Mills, deputy superintendent, also offered additional information about the proposal and his concerns.   He too spoke about the top heavy administration ratio to teachers and said, “During a time that House Speaker Sal DeMasi is projecting a  five to ten percent cut to local aid, does anyone think it is wise to double the number or school administrators in Worcester to replicate a service that clearly already exists?”

He went on to say that the proposal speaks about a rigorous math and science curriculum but fails to understand that these are services that already exist in our schools.   The charter school proposes a rigorous math and science curriculum and implies that this does not exist in the Worcester Public Schools.  Apparently, the board is unfamiliar with the Goddard Scholars Academy at South High School, the Engineering Technology Academy at Doherty Memorial High School, the University Park Campus or the Massachusetts Math and Science initiative at North High School.  All those programs currently have everything that this charter school proposes.

All Worcester public secondary schools were represented at the hearing. All spoke about their programs and the achievements of their students. Burncoat Principal William Foley spoke about the fine arts magnet program and said “it has been in existence for 23 years, and it begins at the middle school level and continues through high school.”  He stated that the charter school intends to offer after-school activities in the arts – band, chorus, drama, and dance. “The fine arts program at Burncoat is unlike any other in that it provides students the opportunity to develop the techniques and skills that will allow them to express themselves through the universal mediums of the arts … . No other school in our area can offer their students this type of opportunity.”  Principal Foley spoke with pride about the students being recognized over the years for their outstanding accomplishments across the state and on the national level.   He also stated that due to their success, the students have gone to many institutions of higher learning such as Harvard, Brown and the University of Massachusetts, to name a few.

South High Principal Maureen Binienda talked of the success of the Goddard Scholars program and the rigor of the program.  “Due to the fact that the program is offered in an area of the city with a low-socio-economic background, Clark University has partnered with the program to offer two full scholarships to the most successful Goddard Scholars…. This intensive program focuses on the core curriculum areas beginning in grade 7 at Sullivan Middle School and the Goddard Scholars are required to take a minimum of five advanced placement courses in high school.”

A number of teachers in the Science, Technology and Engineering Department at Doherty Memorial spoke about their program.  John Staley, department head, acknowledged that this school has already established and demonstrated its ability to graduate students with a solid academic foundation in math, science and technology.

Kathy Berube, math and science facilitor for the Worcester Public Schools, told the panel that in our middle and high schools, students are offered as an after school program training in robotics where students design and build robots using Vex kits and materials.  Trips to UMass Medical School, the Ecotarium, the Abbot Research Lab and Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine are made available to our students. She ended her testimony by saying, “There are ample opportunities for any student who has a desire to extend their understanding and experience in math, science, technology and engineering.  All of these opportunities … are available to ALL Worcester Public students, at no charge to the student and foster mentoring type relationships between student and teacher.”

Chief Financial Officer for the Worcester Public Schools, Brian Allen, analyzed the financial plan in the application of Spirit of Knowledge Charter School and said he felt that the application has overstated revenues and understated expenditures.  He also felt that that the application is questionable as to the most prudent use of taxpayer money for a school that will offer a program or service that is already provided by the Worcester Public Schools.  If this charter school application is approved, more than $29 million will be transferred from the Worcester Public Schools and surrounding districts to the Spirit of Knowledge Academy Charter School over the next five years.

Mr. Allen ended his statement with the best line of the night: “Although this school intends to focus on mathematics, unfortunately the financial plan as submitted just simply does not add up!”

Several students in the Worcester Public Schools spoke about their positive experiences, as did David LeBoeuf, who recently graduated from South High School and is currently enrolled at Clark University on a full scholarship.  David spoke about the challenging courses and the rigor of his classes at South High and how they helped him succeed at Clark.

“Education to me is the solid rock which served as my supporting pillar.  As a juvenile diabetic I was made to feel inferior because of my disease.  It was the academics of the Worcester Public Schools that provided me with the solace necessary to grow into a stronger and more autonomous person,” said Mr. LeBoeuf.

He went on say that if the Board of Education wants to take a progressive stance towards supporting education, support the existing Goddard Scholars programs at Service Learning initiatives at South High, rather than issuing a charter and financially crippling schools that serve our community.

Many, many other speakers spoke passionately about the need to support education in this community.  Many urged the board to maintain its commitment to true democratic education and not penalize the Worcester Public School for their beneficial contributions. The board was asked not support a charter school whose proposals are flawed, inaccurate, and not needed in our community.

After listening to testimony for two hours, the Spirit of Knowledge Academy  did not prove that it would serve as a model for other schools in the region.   Being a model school is considered one of the guidelines for acceptance as a charter school.  In addition, there were too many flaws in their proposal, as outlined by the speakers mentioned above. Although well-intentioned, the approval of this charter school would not only be superfluous but would cripple the finances of the Worcester Public Schools in an already tight fiscal year.

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