GLOUCESTER — The Gloucester Community Arts Charter School’s brief and turbulent existence will come to a halt next Friday afternoon when the school will officially close.
Citing a weak financial ledger and an inability to pay its staff and already set to close in June after making a deal with the state last month to avoid having its charter revoked, the school’s board of trustees voted unanimously Tuesday night to shut down early.
“I feel terrible,” said James Caviston, president of the trustees. “We worked very hard to make this school work.”
Before the school agreed to close, state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester recommended revoking the school’s charter, citing poor academic performance, low enrollment, high rates of attrition and staff turnover, and fiscal instability. At that point, the school’s trustees volunteered to surrender the school’s charter, scheduled to last five years, in exchange for the state helping to fund the school through June.
But Caviston and Tony Blackman, another trustee and the charter’s founding executive director, said the school could not continue because of decreasing enrollment. The K-8 school began the year with 136 students, well below its capacity of 240, and by late last month that number had dwindled to 110.
“In the end we lost our financial destiny due to the reduction in enrollment,” said Blackman.
The school, proposed by some Cape Ann residents who wanted another publicly funded option for children, was born in turmoil in 2009. Before it opened – some three weeks late in September 2010 – the state’s inspector general issued a report charging that the charter had been issued by the state’s education leaders in response to political pressure on Beacon Hill.
After opening, the state attorney general declared that charter officials violated the state’s bidding laws when it obtained its lease and modular classrooms. Because an investigation determined the violation was unintentional, no penalty was issued. By Oct. 10, Chester placed the school on probation, citing 12 issues, including its overall financial instability.
Following a site visit in October, the state’s Charter School Office concluded that the school lacked a curriculum, and some classrooms were marked by disorder and lack of focus. “Student engagement varied during observed lessons, but for most of the observed lesson time, students were not fully engaged in learning,” the Charter School Office wrote in its review of the school, which Chester cited in his December recommendation to revoke the charter.
Chester could not be reached for comment.
JC Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the school could not function with low enrollment and fiscal problems.
“In order for any charter school to be successful and viable, they need to have kids enroll in the school, and those kids need to be getting a quality education,” said Considine. “And on both fronts, that wasn’t happening here.”
According to Considine, this will mark the fourth charter school in the state that has closed midyear. Blackman, the Gloucester charter school trustee, said 23 teachers would be laid off Friday.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk of Gloucester said about 100 students would be displaced by the school’s closing.
Kirk, who originally opposed the school’s creation because it would shift funds away from the public school district, threw her support to the school’s students and parents after it opened, and was the school’s graduation speaker last June.
Kirk said she has been working with school officials to welcome back any of the charter students who want to return to district schools.
“My compassion has rested with the families, who are just trying to do right by their children, and we will continue to demonstrate that compassion by easing their transition back to our schools,” she said.
At least one parent has not made up his mind about where he will send his 15-year-old. Frank Gentile said the school’s educators and small class sizes had allowed his son to flourish over the past two years.
He has yet to tell his son — who has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism — that the school will close next Friday.
“He excelled at this school,” Gentile said. “It was smaller. He quickly made friends and did better in school. This was a kid that at times didn’t want to wake up to go to school to where he could not even be late for school or miss a day.”