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Charter school moves ahead

Company says it will address concerns later

The company that will manage a recently approved charter school in Lowell will wait until the enrollment process is complete before addressing concerns over projections of high student-teacher ratios for those with special needs and English as a second language, according to a representative.

By a 6-3 vote, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved the application for the Lowell Collegiate Charter School, a college preparatory school for students from kindergarten through twelfth grade that will be managed by SABIS Educational Systems, Inc., a private, for-profit company based in Minnesota. Although a location has yet to be determined, the school has proposed to open for the 2013-2014 school year.


SABIS, which already manages charter schools in Springfield and Holyoke, plans to serve an estimated 540 students from kindergarten through fifth grade in its first year, and add a grade level each additional year until it reaches an enrollment of up to 1,200 students through twelfth grade. The company's school in Springfield is only its second K-12 school in the nation, but SABIS manages schools in 15 countries overall and serves more than 60,000 students, said Jose Afonso, the company's director of US business development.

After analyzing the school district, Afonso said, SABIS found that there was a demand in Lowell for an alternative to the traditional public school.

"We realized the district wasn't offering the quality programs that parents want, as evident by testing data,'' Afonso said. "We thought we could make a difference in the community by keeping families from moving, be a part of the solution to stabilize the community, and give it the competitive edge that it needs.''

The board's decision, which followed a recommendation from Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester to approve the school, was not without criticism, specifically of SABIS's proposal to employ just one English as a Second Language teacher even though 33 percent of the district's current students are considered to have limited English proficiency. Using projected enrollment numbers, the board calculated that such a plan could lead to a student-teacher ratio of 178-to-1 in the school's first year of operation. The board was also critical that there would be 27 special education students for one teacher and an aide.


Paul Georges, president of the United Teachers of Lowell, called the charter approval "unfortunate,'' criticizing the company's proposal, and its low enrollment of English language learners in its Springfield and Holyoke schools compared to those enrolled in the school districts as a whole.

"Either by design or happenstance, they have a low population of the neediest students,'' Georges said. "Coming to Lowell, with its large population of English language learner students, seems counterproductive and counterintuitive. It really raises the question about the state's commitment to accommodate the needs of the most needy students. . . . I'm disappointed that some members of the commission weren't more thorough in this, and didn't recognize this as being potentially detrimental to our students.''

Georges also questioned the timing of the approval, given that two years ago the board shut down the middle school portion of the Lowell Community Charter Public School because of persistently inadequate academic progress, leaving Lowell public schools to absorb that student population.

Given that situation, as well as the city's economic challenges, Lowell schools have been making steady progress in the MCAS test, Georges said. Last fall, Governor Deval Patrick stopped by the Charlotte M. Murkland Elementary School, listed among the state's 35 underperforming schools, to recognize that it made the biggest strides in the percentage of students scoring at proficient and advanced levels between 2010 and 2011.


"So we're making progress and educating bilingual [English language learner] students,'' Georges said. "So to bring in a charter school that will impact us financially down the road . . . it seem counterintuitive to a system that's improving significantly.''

Lowell Schools Superintendent Jean M. Franco opposed the approval, but said she hopes the new school will be willing to "serve all populations long-term.''

"Special education, English language learners, or very high-ed, [I hope] that that school works in the life of the family and supports a student long-term,'' Franco said. "Within the last three years, we've gotten over 230 kids . . . sent back to us from charter schools. Within that total, there were probably around 60 children who have a learning disability, children with individual educational plans.''

Afonso said the criticisms levied at SABIS are unfair, and that even though the company keeps about 6 percent of the per-pupil funding issued by the state, its main goal is the success of its students.

"To criticize us prior to opening is a bit premature, frankly. Once we conclude the enrollment in February or March of next year, we will then know what sort of needs our students will have, and at that time we'll hire the appropriate staff to meet their needs,'' Afonso said. "We're a family company; we're not beholden to investors who are expecting a return on investment at a high rate or any rate. We've never shortchanged our schools; far from it. We've invested heavily in our schools to make sure they're very successful. . . . We don't succeed if our kids don't succeed.''


For SABIS, the next order of business will be to find a location to house the school, Afonso said. Informational meetings for parents will be scheduled within the next couple of months, to be followed by a community reception where questions will be answered about the school model and curriculum. The company will also look for temporary office space in the city this fall to give parents access to information about the enrollment process, leading up to a public lottery early next year, he said.

"The city has great diversity and it's a vibrant city,'' Afonso said. "We're very happy to offer another choice in education.''

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.