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Marlborough

Marlborough charter school faces transitions

The Advanced Math & Science Academy in Marlborough has earned a reputation as one of the state’s most successful charter schools, based on soaring standardized test scores, a waiting list of 600 students, and a nod from a national magazine citing the best high schools in Massachusetts.

But as the regional school completes its eighth year and graduates its third class of seniors, it also faces a round of challenges: an ongoing civil lawsuit with its landlord, a changing demographic as more students from the school’s core communities join, and complaints from some parents about a lack of transparency and communication by administrators.

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“This is a wonderful school,” said Deb Long, whose son is a 10th-grader at the academy. “Yes, there are some problems. And we need to grow, and we need to be able to talk about it.”

Long said the academy’s accolades are well deserved, including its designation earlier this year by US News & World Report as the third best high school in the state. But she wants to see the administration communicate with parents more often about the facilities, ways to improve the curriculum, and how the school can meet the needs of all its children.

The charter school is focused on its main task, which is student achievement, said Craig Holbrook, the chairman of the academy’s board of trustees.

“We’re going to focus on running the third best high school in the state of Massachusetts,” Holbrook said. “And making sure the children are safe.”

For most of the 970 students in grades 6 through 12, and dozens of teachers at the Advanced Math & Science Academy, the developing controversies seem like faraway concerns.

Last week, seventh-graders dressed in polo shirts and khaki pants reviewed the formula for distance in math class. When their teacher asked them to rate the problem’s difficulty, most of them raised two or three fingers, indicating that it was on the simple side.

Across the hall, a teacher prepared a presentation for a national conference about the video games her middle-school computer science students had developed. And upstairs, high school students quietly chatted as they manipulated straws into designs for an art project.

But for the past two years, the school’s administration and trustees have been mired in suits and countersuits in Middlesex Superior Court with the landlord about the facilities, resulting in a 5-inch-thick stack of legal documents.

The conflict between the charter school and Forest Street Realty Trust has been brewing since 2011. School officials have been trying to get out of their long-term lease for the Forest Street buildings, in a converted office park, that have been the academy’s home since it opened in 2005.

In court documents, the school states that the landlord has overcharged it by $442,611, and failed to make adequate improvements to the buildings over the years. Officials have discovered serious issues with heating, ventilation, and mold, and that the facilities did not meet the building code requirements for a school, the documents state.

However, the landlord’s trustee, David DePietri, has contended the school would not allow maintenance workers on the campus to fix many of the problems, and is trying to pressure him into ending the 25-year lease, according to documents. DePietri did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment.

Holbrook said the school wants to end the lease, and has asked a judge to release it from any future financial obligations to the landlord.

Holbrook said the health- and safety-related problems at the school have been addressed, although he declined to comment on what measures have been taken and how much they cost.

The school received preliminary approval in April from the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency for a $25 million bond to help buy and renovate a new space that would include a 160,000-square-foot building, 70 classrooms, science labs, and athletic facilities.

Holbrook said he doesn’t expect the lawsuit to be resolved soon, but the charter school is making preparations.

“We’re certainly evaluating options in the event that the lawsuit is settled,” he said. “We’ve looked at a number of facilities.”

The new facility would provide the school with more space for its growing student body, and the amenities found in traditional middle and high schools, including athletic facilities, said John Brucato, the school’s executive director.

It’s among several transitional issues facing the school.

When it first opened, few families from its core charter towns — Marlborough, Clinton, Hudson, Marlborough and Maynard — enrolled. The school instead drew from dozens of other communities, including Needham and Shrewsbury, between Boston and Worcester.

As the school’s reputation grew, so did its waiting list. Preference is given to the siblings of students already attending the school, and then to families in the core communities. As the children of those first families grow up and graduate, more students from the core communities will attend the school, Brucato said.

Next year, the school’s special education population is set to double. Currently, special education students make up 3.3 percent of the academy’s total enrollment, compared with the statewide average of 17 percent, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Brucato said the district is looking to hire a director of student services, and provide more training for staff on teaching to different learning styles.

Much of the school’s original founders also have stepped away from leadership roles.

“It is, to a certain degree, a normal cycle,” said Anna Charny, a member of the founding board who is no longer involved in the school. She resigned from the board of trustees last year, she said, because meetings were getting bogged down by administrative issues, and there was less discussion about how to push the school academically.

“I hope that the school continues to be academically the school we had hoped it would be,” Charny said. “At the moment, it appears that AMSA provides a great education.”

Still, there are some parents who are concerned about the changes.

Several weeks ago, many families received an e-mail from an organization called Take Back AMSA raising concerns about the lawsuit and the school’s governance. The group is made up of six families and has a blog, said one of its founding members, Linda Boguslav, whose children have attended the school since it opened.

Boguslav said she is concerned the school’s administration was slow to let families know about the lawsuit and the building’s problems, and parents are left in the dark about issues at the school.

“That was a way we saw to get people talking and asking questions,” Bugoslav said of the group’s e-mail.

But the administration and other parents said Take Back AMSA represents a small group within the school community.

Susanne O’Hara, a Marlborough parent of two students at the academy and president of its parent-teacher organization, said most families are pleased with the school. When she attends public events for the school, parents frequently come up to her to ask how they can get their children in, she said.

“We’ve had growing pains, like every new school,” O’Hara said. “But 99.9 percent are very happy with the administration and the school.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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