As long as charter schools have existed, they have generated controversy. But no single Massachusetts charter school has drawn more fire than Mystic Valley Regional in Malden, an institution as well known in recent years for the strictness of its dress code — and related allegations of racism — as for its academic reputation.
Critics of the school don’t mince words: They say its culture is racist, harms students, and should be investigated or even shut down. In response, school leaders describe themselves as victims of intolerance in a raging culture war, under attack because they approach race differently than other schools by downplaying the differences between students and instead emphasizing their commonality.
Tensions ratcheted higher this month after a Muslim student and her family complained publicly about the way the school handled the eighth-grader’s decision to wear a hijab, a traditional religious head covering. In the uproar that followed, school leaders met with members of the Muslim community Aug. 23, and with the school’s board of directors Monday night, where they discussed changing the policy to make it easier for students to seek religious exemptions to the dress code, steps some observers found encouraging.
Yet others question why such incidents continue to occur — five years after the school’s ban on the hair extensions worn by some Black students drew condemnation from around the country, prompting a state investigation, changes to the dress code and diversity training for staff.
The episode inspired legislators to pass a new state law, the CROWN Act, that prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle. It was enacted in July, three weeks before Mystic Valley’s dress code again drew widespread scorn.
“How many times does Malden have to make national news for some horrible xenophobic act?” said Ryan O’Malley, a Malden city councilor. “It tears us apart, and damages the fabric of our community . . . It feels like the state’s charter renewal process should assess the real-world impact of the school on the ground here, because it’s about more than just test scores.”
School leaders, meanwhile, say the charter renewal process is rigged against them, and they have sued the state, alleging the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is engaged in a secret campaign to shut down the school by imposing requirements it cannot meet without abandoning its “melting pot” philosophy.
It is the latest in a series of dramas involving the school, founded in 1998 10 miles north of Boston in one of the region’s most diverse small cities. Mystic Valley now serves a racially diverse enrollment of 1,500 students in grades K-12. One-third of its students are low income, according to state data; only 2 percent are classified as English learners, but 48 percent spoke another language before learning English, data show.
Like other charter schools, Mystic Valley is public and free but enjoys greater autonomy. The school offers a longer school day and an extended, 200-day academic year, and touts its above-average test scores. In 2021, 89 percent of Mystic Valley 10th graders met or exceeded expectations on the MCAS English exam, compared to 64 percent statewide.
Its mission statement promises “a world-class education characterized by a well-mannered, disciplined and structured academic climate.”
Even after revisions made in 2017, the school’s dress code remains highly restrictive. Solid-colored socks must be worn at all times. Makeup, facial hair, watches, and tattoos are banned. Shirts must be tucked in, and contact lenses must be clear, not tinted.
School leaders have said the rules promote equity and unity by minimizing disparities, and have offered their own analysis of their discipline statistics to show rates in line with other area schools. Critics contend the school’s atmosphere is punitive and traumatizing to some children, and that administrators retaliate against families who try to intervene.
“Every time I e-mail them, my child gets disciplined,” said one parent of a current student, who asked not to be named for fear of further retaliation. “I understand that a charter school is not a regular school, but we did not sign up for a military academy.”
Still, the waitlist for admission numbered more than 1,600 two years ago, according to the school. Even some families who have publicly criticized the school continue to send their children there — including the Muslim family who said their eighth-grader came home in tears on Aug. 18 after receiving a “uniform infraction” form on her first day of school. (Adding to Muslims’ frustration, the “infraction” written on the form was misspelled “jihab” instead of hijab.)
School leaders said a teacher accidentally gave the student the wrong paperwork on the first day of school, a discipline form instead of an application for a religious exemption to the uniform policy, which prohibits head coverings without a letter from a religious leader. School leaders did not respond to a request for a copy of the application form.
“For this family, they see value in the school,” said Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which stepped in to assist the family after their Facebook posts stirred a strong reaction. “They want it to serve them without stepping on their rights, and they’re hopeful and optimistic.”
Among the uniform policy changes discussed by the school’s board Monday night was a proposal to require a letter from a parent, instead of a religious leader, to approve a religious exemption, said Nichole Mossalam, former director of the Malden Islamic Center, who has served as a liaison between the school’s board and the local Muslim community since the incident. Any changes to the policy must first be reviewed by the state attorney general’s office, oversight put in place after the school’s former ban on hair extensions became public in 2017.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said last week its staff did not approve the practice of requiring a letter from a religious leader when they reviewed the school’s policy in 2017.
The latest change has been long in coming: The family that reported the Aug. 18 incident said in Facebook posts they endured the same painful experience more than 10 years ago, when the girl’s older sister was sent to in-school detention after she wore a hijab to Mystic Valley as a fifth-grader. (The family declined through a spokeswoman to speak with a reporter.)
“We feel so frustrated that nothing has changed at this school,” said Zinah Abukhalil-Quinonez, who withdrew her daughter from Mystic Valley after second grade because of a lack of sensitivity and support, and spoke at the community meeting in Malden on Aug. 23. “No one should need to get a letter to practice their religion — it doesn’t happen anywhere but at Mystic Valley.”
The chairman of the Mystic Valley board, George Warren, was contrite as he faced a crowd of Muslim women at the meeting.
“I can only tell you there will be change,” he said. “We regret what happened here, and we’re going to correct it . . . I hope to earn your trust.”
But while he urged empathy for the teacher who erroneously issued the infraction form, Warren offered no apology to the student involved, a fact pointed out by a parent at the meeting. And a group of Mystic Valley students and alumni declined to speak at the meeting, saying they were too afraid of retaliation.
“Don’t think the silence in this room is because we have nothing to say,” said one.
Others are pushing back against the school in court. On Aug. 17 — the day before the Muslim student received the infraction notice — former Mystic Valley school nurse Teresa Riley-Singh alleged in a lawsuit in Middlesex Superior Court the school fired her in October 2019 after she was told to measure the skirts of female students to identify uniform infractions, and expressed her concern in the weeks that followed that “nursing was put on the back burner” in favor of dress code enforcement.
An attorney for Mystic Valley, Howard Cooper, said in a statement the school does not comment on pending litigation.
He emphasized the school’s undiminished appeal to parents. “There is a literal line of families seeking to enroll their children at the school,” the statement noted.
In addition to concerns about the dress code, a small group of vocal parents have also spoken out about the school’s curriculum choices, including materials they felt dismissed or misrepresented the contributions of Black Americans, and the use of literature that includes the n-word with students as young as fourth grade. And a 2016 graduate of the school told the Globe she faced an uphill battle when she set out to establish a gay-straight alliance at the school, succeeding only after the American Civil Liberties Union intervened.
The school’s cofounder, Neil Kinnon, left Mystic Valley’s board after his online dismissals of multiculturalism and systemic racism sparked a growing backlash, but continues to engage in online discussions of the school.
“When on Board for years would tell people if they did not believe in philosophy ... then they should choose another school or start their own,” he wrote on Facebook this month. “Charters are simply a choice[,] that’s the beauty.”
To one critic of the school, an outspoken parent of a former student, he wrote: “Someone like yourself[,] a non traditional values person, community organizer type, should simply never have chosen MVRCS. Bad fit who should just move on, but cannot for some reason.”
A spokeswoman for the state department of education said Mystic Valley’s next charter review is underway, with a vote by the state board of education expected early next year. She declined to comment on the school’s pending lawsuit against the state, filed in Superior Court last December. The court is considering a motion by the state’s attorneys to dismiss the claim.
The suit accuses the state education department of a plan “to dictate and censor Mystic Valley’s approach based upon its own view of what the outcome should be in the educational culture wars dividing our society.” The school contends that DESE added new “cultural responsiveness” criteria for charter schools, calling for classroom environments that “actively draw upon diverse backgrounds [and] identities,” to set Mystic Valley up for failure in its charter review.
Another mother, whose daughter went to middle school at Mystic Valley and now attends a private high school, said she saw a cultural “blind spot” at the school, evident in its teaching, its dress code and discipline, and its resistance to those who raised concerns.
“Mystic Valley is putting up a huge fight against multicultural education,” she said, “and I’ve never seen a school that needed it more.”