New Worcester charter school gets green light — despite objections from local officials
The state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 7-4 Tuesday to grant a charter to the proposed new Worcester Cultural Academy.
The vote will allow the school to open its doors in August, despite the fierce — and ongoing — resistance of Worcester school leaders and elected officials over its cost and alleged conflicts of interest.
Worcester Cultural Academy plans to open with kindergarten through the fourth grade. At full capacity, it proposes to serve up to 360 students from kindergarten to the eighth grade. The school hopes to offer what it calls “a unique learning experience” by bringing students to nearby museums and cultural institutions.
But it’s the school’s close ties to one such institution — Old Sturbridge Village, a “living museum” that recreates life in the rural New England of the 19th century — that generated pushback ahead of the vote.
Most of the 17 founding members of Worcester Cultural Academy team either work, or have worked, at Old Sturbridge Village or its adjoining charter school, the Old Sturbridge Academy, which was founded in 2017.
During an hourlong public comment Tuesday, some critics noted that, in Old Sturbridge Village’s 2022 annual report, museum president Jim Donahue referred to the “anticipated expansion of Old Sturbridge Academy” as a source of “reliable, contractual revenue to the museum.” (Donahue is among the Cultural Academy’s founding group.)
Other critics expressed concern about the financial consequences of opening up a new charter school, which is funded by reimbursements from state education aid to students’ home districts. State Representative David LeBoeuf, who opposed the approval, said that the Academy will cost Worcester a projected $7 million a year.
There are currently 76 charter schools operating in the state. Would-be founders submit documents to the Mass. Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the board votes on whether or not to grant new charters in the month of February. The last fully new charter was granted to Phoenix Academy in Lawrence in 2018.
Tuesday's critics also argued that Worcester Cultural Academy leaders have little expertise in serving English learners — who make up 30.4 percent of the students in the Worcester Public Schools.
Patrick Tutwiler, the state’s new secretary of education, agreed, expressing concerns with the academy’s ability to provide an inclusive setting for students. As he voted against approving the charter, Tutwiler cited the fact that “the particular provider does not have proven experience with multilingual learners.”
Along with members Mary Ann Stewart and Darlene Lombos, student member Eric Plankey of Westford Academy also voted ‘no’. “We’re the board of education,” he said. “We're here to provide high quality education for the students of Massachusetts. We are not here to provide a financial lifeboat for a museum.”
But at least one parent cheered the prospect of an alternative education outlet during the hourlong public comment before Tuesday’s vote.
Stacey Luster, a Worcester resident who is on the charter school's founding team, said that her home district has “taken a turn in the wrong direction” in terms of its core academics and diverse recruitment. Luster added that Worcester families deserve other options for their children to experience “small class sizes” and “expeditionary, project-based learning.”
Worcester’s superintendent, Rachel Monárrez, said she was “incredibly disheartened” by the board’s decision — adding that the Worcester Cultural Academy’s proposal “lacks details on how to serve high-needs students of diverse backgrounds.”
“That worries me above all else,” she said.
At a brief meeting Monday night, Worcester’s school committee voted unanimously to refer the issue of the new charter school to the state auditor and inspector general, citing conflicts of interest based on its ties to Old Sturbridge Village.