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State renews charter of Malden school often found at center of controversy

Exterior of Mystic Valley Regional Charter School.Jonathan Wiggs Staff/Photographer

The state has renewed the charter of a Malden school that for years has been embroiled in controversy, most recently facing accusations of discrimination after an eighth-grader was cited by a staff member for a “uniform infraction” for wearing a hijab.

Critics for years have alleged the school culture at Mystic Valley Regional is racist, intolerant, and harmful to students, and among the 18 charters that were up for renewal, it was the only one that drew opposition against it.

But Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley’s recent decision to renew the charter for another five years came without fanfare; he simply notified the state education board this week of his decision. In documents submitted to the board prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Riley wrote the school has been “faithful to its mission and implements its key design elements” and demonstrated progress when it comes to student achievement.

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Riley declined to comment on the decision, citing an active lawsuit the school filed in 2021, accusing the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education of secretly working to shut the academically high-performing school down by imposing requirements it cannot meet without abandoning its “melting pot” philosophy.

In the lawsuit, the school referenced the state’s addition of new “cultural responsiveness” criteria for charter schools and the call for classroom environments that “actively draw upon diverse backgrounds [and] identities.” Mystic Valley has said it has been criticized because of how it approaches race differently, downplaying the differences between students and instead emphasizing their commonality.

The state education department did not immediately respond to a request for the written public comments regarding Mystic Valley’s renewal, but one was written by Malden City Councilor Ryan O’Malley, an outspoken critic of the school. In an interview, O’Malley said he disagreed with the state’s decision to renew.

“Almost any underrepresented group at that school is really kind of put through the meat grinder, and their mental health suffers because of that,” said O’Malley. “Mystic Valley Regional Charter School is honestly threatening the entire charter school system in Massachusetts. If DESE is not going to rein them in, then there needs to be some action by the legislature to change the law so that schools like Mystic Valley cannot operate with impunity.”

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But Mystic Valley Superintendent and Director Alex Dan said he was “glad to see that the process was implemented fairly and accurately and in a non biased way,” pointing to the school’s strong academic showing. In 2022, nearly 80 percent of the school’s 10th grade students met or exceeded expectations on the MCAS English exam, compared to the 58 percent statewide.

The K-12 charter school was founded in 1998, and serves a racially diverse enrollment of 1,608, including 58 percent students of color and nearly half who spoke another language before learning English.

But the charter school has come under fire multiple times, including last August, when a Muslim student and her family publicly accused Mystic Valley of discrimination over the handling of the eighth-grader’s decision to wear a hijab. The student was cited by a staff member for a “uniform infraction” for wearing the traditional religious head covering. The school five years prior also drew national criticism after two Black students received detention and were banned from extracurricular activities because they wore braids with extensions.

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Governor Maura Healey, as the former attorney general, determined that the school’s policy on hairstyles discriminated against students of color, prompting the school to drop the rule and resulted in the legislation barring discrimination on the basis of a person’s natural hairstyle or hair texture.

Despite the controversies, Mystic Valley has said it had a waitlist of 1,600 just a couple of years ago and some families who have publicly criticized the school continue to send their children there.


Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her @adriarwatson.