A proposal for a charter school in Andover has taken many in town by surprise, given that the person proposing the school is David Birnbach, a current Andover School Committee member who has served more than four terms in the last decade.
Three of the seven finalists that state officials are considering for new charters are in the region north of Boston: the STEAM Studio Charter School in Andover and two proposals from Lynn.
In August, Birnbach sought guidance from the State Ethics Commission about his role in the new school and a potential conflict of interest, given his position on the School Committee.
In an Aug. 6 letter, the commission advised Birnbach that state law prohibited him from appearing before the School Committee on behalf of the charter school. The commission also advised him to abstain from participating in discussions about the charter during committee meetings if he is unable to put aside his views as a charter proponent.
Birnbach said the proposed high school, STEAM Studio Charter School – an acronym for Science Technology Engineering Arts Math – would serve Andover students in grades 9 to 12, and if approved, would open next September. The school would begin with one ninth grade class of 100 students, and add a new grade each year until it reached a maximum of 450 students in four years.
Birnbach said the school’s focus would be on preparing students to attend college and enter expanding job markets that hire engineers, computer professionals, and scientists. He said the charter school would have a narrower focus than Andover High School, which has a wider range of electives than the proposed charter school.
“The computing and health science field represent the two fields where the most jobs and the highest growth careers lie for students graduating high school and college today,” he said.
The Andover application has been criticized in town, where MCAS scores have traditionally outranked the rest of the state, and where high school students regularly are accepted at Ivy League schools.
“I am not individually supportive of this particular effort, given the overall budgetary impact it would have on the entire school budget,” said Dennis Forgue, chairman of the Andover School Committee.
If the new charter is approved, it would receive more than $11,000 annually from the state for each Andover student, money that would otherwise go to the Andover School District.
Charter schools are publicly funded and, unlike traditional district schools, are not overseen by local superintendents but by an autonomous board of directors. The schools adhere to state educational curriculum and frameworks but can create themed learning institutions.
There are currently 81 charter schools in the state, with five new charters approved last year, including the Pioneer Charter School of Science II, a grade 7-12 facility that is operating in Everett and is planning to build a school in Saugus.
The proposed school in Andover would run from 7:45 a.m. to 2:05 p.m. weekdays and offer core subjects such as math, English, social studies, science, and a foreign language course four days a week, with electives drawn from computing/digital arts and health sciences. Fridays would focus on lectures and projects that would match mentors with students who would work on problem-solving in the fields of computing and health sciences.
“We’re doing a deep dive in immersing students in these concentrations,” said Birnbach.
Andover, which sends more than 90 percent of its high school graduates to colleges, also has the sixth-highest MCAS 10th grade math results in the state, according to Forgue.
In the most recent round of testing, 82 percent of Andover High sophomores scored at the highest level — advanced — in math, compared with 55 percent statewide.
Forgue said the high school is looking at expanding its math, science, and engineering curriculum and added that students are already enrolled in edx.org, an online consortium composed of universities such as Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology that offer high school credit.
This would be the first charter school in Andover; there are several in neighboring Lawrence. However, Greater Lawrence Technical School — which is located in Andover and draws students from Andover, Lawrence, Methuen, and North Andover — has honors courses in math and science. It has not had the same success in MCAS testing as Andover High School.
Other applications state officials are considering include the proposed K-8 Lynn Preparatory Charter School, which would recruit students from “the lowest performing schools in the most economically distressed neighborhoods” of Lynn. Students would attend school 8½ hours a day for 190 calendar days, or about 25 percent more time than at traditional district schools.
Fenix Charter School, the other proposal in Lynn, would enroll students in grades 5-12. Frank DeVito, the school’s founder, said the school would also be project-oriented, with students working in teams in classrooms, allowing teachers to roam the aisles and act as guides. Classes would be held from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. – longer than the Lynn School District day – and students would take part in internships and extended learning time from 3:30 to 6 p.m.