Gloucester Charter School Defies State And Opens

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9 year old Alexis Exama can't contain her excitment that the charter school is open.  Her mother Ruthie Exama was faught hard to get the school going.  Behind them are Jennifer Schulman and her daughter Joscelyn, going into the 5th grade. (Photo by WBUR)
Nine-year-old Alexis Exama can't contain her excitement that the charter school is open. Her mother, Ruthie Exama, fought hard to get the school going. Behind them are Jennifer Schulman and her daughter, Joscelyn, who's entering fifth grade. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

The opening of Gloucester Community Arts Charter School sounded more like a pep rally than the first day of class. After a year-and-a-half battle over the school, Thursday was a celebration for the parents, students and the school's executive director, Tony Blackman, who held a framed copy of the charter.

"The bottom line is that this document, this charter, this is a legally chartered school, empowered by this state to educate these children," Blackman said.

The charter is signed by Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who earlier this week wrote a letter to the school warning it not to open because he no longer believes it’s viable.  Last year, e-mails revealed Chester pushed for state support — against the advice of the Charter School Office — as a way to advance the governor’s education agenda.  Now he says the school’s opening has been mismanaged and may have violated the state’s construction and procurement laws.

Chester said Thursday he’s disappointed the school opened against his wishes and he will call a special meeting of the Board of Education to discuss the matter. But that didn’t scare parents.

"I think the commissioner violated his policies. I think the commissioner ought to be fired," said parent Scott Barraclough. "Once they did an investigation into the commissioner, that’s the time, which was six to nine months ago, that if they were going to stop the school and revoke it they should have done it then."

Now, parents believe the state will have little legal reason to shut down the school.  The temporary modular buildings have passed inspection and it’s staffed and almost fully enrolled with 85 students. But pressure is still on to close the school.  State Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, has written to Gov. Deval Patrick to ask him to pull funding because he says there are too many irregularities in the process.

"I think we all need to close this chapter of this very ill-fated school and begin a serious discussion in Gloucester about how to educate every child," Tarr said.

In Gloucester one of the main complaints against this charter, as with others, is funding.  Eventually district schools will lose as much as $2.4 million a year to the charter.

"This is obviously the best choice, that’s why we fought so hard for it," said parent Rebecca Olsen. "The schools in town are failing, the public school system is not working, and this is a wonderful viable alternative."

Jennifer Shulman says she’s choosing the charter despite its uncertain future because it’s the best chance her daughter has for a good education.

"Ninety-five percent of the fifth graders, 93 percent of the fourth graders failed math" at the Veterans Elementary school where her daughter would have to attend.  "We have no other choice," Shulman said.

That’s the refrain of most parents: they have no other choice. But parents feel that at least for now, they have won a small victory in this ongoing battle.

This program aired on September 24, 2010.


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