Wong and Fitchburg charter official ready to defend school

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FITCHBURG — Supporters of the North Central Charter Essential School were  prepared to travel to Malden this morning to ask the state Board of Elementary  and Secondary Education to renew the school’s five-year charter with no  conditions.

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester has recommended the school be placed  on probation while renewing its charter, news that school administrators said  came out of left field last week, because they had been lauded by state  officials for the school’s academic improvements as recently as last fall.

NCCES Executive Director Stephanie Davolos and Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong plan  to speak on behalf of the charter school, a junior-senior high-school program  that both said has served as a good complement to the city’s public school  district.

The 10-year-old charter school, which is located on Oak Hill Road in the  renovated Anwelt building, is considered an established and financially viable  school, said Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public  School Association.

Chester’s recommendation has Kenen “very concerned,” because, he said, it  followed just one year after the state board voted unanimously to lift an  academic-improvement condition from its current charter — based on the  increasing success of NCCES students.

Kenen also said there is no “paper trail” alerting the school that such a  severe warning was on its way and that Chester has never visited the program.

“Charter Schools are held to the highest standards of any kind of school,” Kenen said,  adding that the review process “must be conducted with transparency and  consistency.”

“We’re very concerned by this,” he added, “because a year later (after the  condition was removed), to turn around and put the school on probation, it seems  very unfair and inconsistent.”

Chester’s recommendation to renew the charter, but on probation because of  the school’s academic performance, came from a by-the-book evaluation of the  school, said JC Considine, spokesman for the Department of Elementary and  Secondary Education.

“It is a decision that the commissioner has made. The school may not agree  with it,” Considine said. “First and foremost, the commissioner is recommending  that the charter be renewed, but with the condition that reflects his  evaluation, that a school that’s been open for 10 years should be performing  better.”

Some NCCES parents, students and faculty members plan to send letters to the  BESE in support of the school’s personalized approach.

Katherine Quenneville of Gardner said her son, who entered the school as a  junior, asked to enroll there and enjoys school for the first time in his life.

“NCCES is a haven for those children (who felt lost in traditional public  schools), and my son is one of those,” she wrote.

Linda Tarantino, who heads the school’s Math Department, said the school’s  approach to math education is “deliberate, coordinated and effective” in  preparing students for college and careers. It not only provides remedial work  for those below their grade level, but a flexible approach enables  high-achievers to move up, she said. A middle-school student who has mastered  the concepts, for example, can complete algebra before entering high school,  Tarantino wrote.

All public schools are evaluated by whether they meet adequate yearly  progress, or AYP, as determined by state education officials under the federal  No Child Left Behind act. The MCAS exam evaluates student progress in public  schools and public charters.

AYP is calculated both for the aggregate population of a grade level in a  given school, as well as by subgroups, such as students with limited English  proficiency, from low-income households or with learning disabilities.

Considine said the state’s charter-review process is “a strong model” that  has received national recognition for approving successful charter schools.

The strict evaluation and accountability standards are by design, said Jamie  Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute. Since  charter schools are more autonomous, they must show they’re performing.

But, Gass added, when state officials so publicly praised the school, and 90  percent of its graduates go on to higher education, it’s “really quite  troubling” that the school would receive such a recommendation.

It’s also perplexing, Gass said, that Chester’s memo relies heavily on AYP  reporting, considering that Chester and state education officials are seeking  waivers from the federal government on meeting AYP targets.

The politics of charter approval and renewal in Massachusetts came under fire  in 2009, when an email from Education Secretary Paul Reville to Chester revealed  Reville’s encouragement to approve the charter for the Gloucester Community Arts  Charter School — despite recommendations to the contrary from Chester’s own  office — because he did not want to give the impression of a “hostile” charter  environment.

Gass said the Gloucester issue created doubt as to whether Chester is basing  decisions on the best academic practices.

“It really created a crisis of confidence in the commissioner’s ability to  handle charter-school evaluations fairly,” Gass said.

Considine disagreed, saying Chester’s decision in Gloucester was “based on  the merits of that proposal.”

“Politics has never been a motivator or an issue for Commissioner Chester,”  Considine said.

Chester’s letter to the BESE explains that despite showing overall  improvement in English Language Art scores on the MCAS exams, the school did not  make progress in its math scores and remains in a precarious accountability  status based on its math scores.

Davolos last week explained that the school’s seventh-grade math program is  designed to offer remedial help to students entering the school with third- and  fourth-grade math abilities — and state officials have never indicated the  approach could land NCCES in trouble.

Another factor causing concern for the school is the future of its facilities  plan, Kenen said. The school has raised a considerable amount of money and was  seeking a $9 million loan to purchase the space it currently occupies.

While a “probation” designation wouldn’t necessarily prohibit the school from  buying its building, it could put a strain on its efforts. The school doesn’t  receive any public money for its building.

That a mayor who serves as chairwoman of the School Committee would vocally  support a public charter school is “unprecedented and shows tremendous vision  and courage,” Kenen said of Wong.

Opposition to charter schools often comes from the idea that the programs  draw resources from public school departments. Kenen said it appears that  Fitchburg recognizes NCCES as an addition to the city.

“We have never seen a mayor or school committee that’s been willing to come  out in support of a charter school,” Kenen said, adding that it shows that Wong  understands “a good charter program is one piece of a bigger puzzle.”

Charter schools came to Massachusetts as a result of the state Education  Reform Act of 1993. There are about 73 in operation, according to the state  Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website.

Also seen in Sentinel & Enterprise.