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Metro

Gloucester charter school targeted for closure

The state’s education commissioner has recommended shutting down the controversial Gloucester Community Arts Charter School, citing low enrollment, high staff turnover, and a failure to adhere to the terms of its charter.

“The board of trustees has not effectively overseen the school’s fiscal or academic performance,” Mitchell D. Chester, commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in a memo sent to the education department’s board, urging it to revoke the school’s charter. “School administrators at GCACS have not demonstrated an ability to ensure an orderly environment or execute a plan to remedy poor academic performance.”

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If the education board follows Chester’s recommendation, the charter would be revoked effective June 30, 2013. The board oversees the granting and revocation of charters. The school faced opposition even before its opening in 2010.

From the start, some questioned the granting of the charter, and a report released by the state’s inspector general found political pressure had influenced education leaders’ decision to grant the charter.

The Gloucester school opened three weeks late because of construction delays, and Attorney General Martha Coakley accused the school of obtaining its lease and modular classrooms in ways that violated state bidding laws.

In his memo, Chester said he usually advocates giving a charter school five years to show results, but the Gloucester school looks more like an institution that has not opened or beginning its first year rather than its third.

James Caviston, chairman of the charter school’s board of trustees, said Monday that he believed Chester’s recommendation was based too much on a site visit to the school in October. He said the commissioner would probably have found a very different situation if he had waited until the end of the school year. The school had a student population of 123 in October.

Caviston said other schools have lost charters because of fraud or gross mismanagement, infractions he said the Gloucester school had not committed.

“This move by the commissioner is unprecedented and unwarranted,” Caviston said. “We are not anything like any of the schools that have had their charters revoked in the middle of their five-year terms.”

Jonathan Pope, chairman of the Gloucester School Committee, said the school was given a charter under a “cloud of missteps by many groups” and that it had been a controversial and divisive topic in the community.

“It’s an unfortunate circumstance, and it has been for years,” Pope said. “The Community Arts Charter School has failed the children of Gloucester in a number of ways.”

Pope said he hoped the proposed revocation would be “an opportunity for the city to do a better job of funding education locally.”

Mayor Carolyn A. Kirk said the school had a positive influence on the community by providing competition that spurred innovation in the city’s public schools.

The city’s middle school is now an innovation school — or one that allows educational innovations and competes more aggressively with charter schools — partly due to that competition, she said.

She expressed compassion for the families affected by the proposed revocation but said the move was justified.

“I think the board of trustees of the charter school just utterly failed in their mission, and I think the families are caught in the cross hairs,” Kirk said. “I don’t know if two or three more years would have made a difference.”

A report by the education department in October showed improvement in English MCAS scores at the Gloucester charter school between 2011 and 2012, but students remained far behind the state averages.

Mathematics MCAS scores were dismal, with only 3 percent of the school’s students performing at an advanced level in either year.

Caviston, chairman of the charter school’s board, said it is now financially sound and is addressing its problems. It lost ground, he said, because of a high turnover of teachers at the end of the 2011-12 school year, but the school has replaced them with highly competent educators.

The school plans to oppose Chester’s recommendation, Caviston said, and hopes the education department’s board can be swayed.

“All I can say is that we are preparing to go before the board and request that they reconsider and at the very least come back and visit the school later in the year,” Caviston said.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com.
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