Andover, Lynn

State rejects two charter school plans

First time in past four years none in area are approved

The state has rejected applications for proposed schools in Andover and Lynn, marking the first time in four years that a community north of Boston will not be adding a charter school.

In their application, founders of the STEAM Studio Charter School in Andover said its curriculum was designed to foster creativity and innovation in science, technology, engineering, art and design, and mathematics, thus its STEAM acronym. Fenix Charter School in Lynn said its focus would be on creativity, innovation, collaboration, and social responsibility.

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While the Andover public school district has a high success rate for MCAS testing, with 90 percent or more of all students showing proficiency in English, math, and science, Lynn — where the first language is not English for 54 percent of students — has struggled. Of the 4,749 students who took the MCAS in 2013, proficiency rates were 78 percent in English, 70 percent in math, and 67 percent in science.

In recent months, the Andover and Lynn charter proposals had generated a familiar debate: the question of shifting public funds from a school district to a charter, governed by a board independent of the host district.

With 81 charter schools now in the state and 16 in the region, Andover and Lynn officials opposed the proposed charters, describing their curriculum as redundant while stating that the schools would have drained funding away from the larger public school districts.

The proposals also served to further test smaller, high-achieving school districts as charters seek to expand in the suburbs. Andover, which sent 95 percent of its 2013 high school graduating class to four-year colleges, also had the sixth-highest MCAS 10th-grade math results in the state last year, according to Dennis Forgue, Andover School Committee chairman. There are currently no public charter schools in town.

“It would have drained the coffers without a significant enhancement in the academic offerings that are already available,” said Forgue, when asked about the proposed STEAM Studio Charter School.

In its final application review of the STEAM proposal, Mitchell D. Chester, elementary and secondary education commissioner, concluded the vision was “not sufficiently developed, or integrated into the implementation of a comprehensive educational program.”

The state also cited other weaknesses in the application, such as a lack of procedure used to evaluate the curriculum. It also questioned how the school would serve special education students.

“The description of the processes and procedures used to identify, assess, and serve students receiving special education services was extremely limited,” Chester wrote.

David Birnbach, cofounder of the proposed STEAM Studio school and an Andover School Committee member, said the leaders of the proposed school would decide in the coming months whether to submit an application for 2015.

Birnbach said the group might propose a similar school in a different city.

“The initiative is very much alive. It has as much momentum as ever and we’re continuing to enhance the team’s capabilities and educational programs going forward,” said Birnbach. “We have put together a really exciting hands-on educational experience for high school students and we’re excited to see that come to fruition here in the Commonwealth.”

In Lynn, Frank DeVito, founder of the proposed Fenix Charter School, called the state’s decision “disappointing” but acknowledged that the review of the proposed charter was accurate.

The review found fault with the proposed school’s vision, describing the project-based theme as “not sufficiently developed.” It also questioned the proposed school’s academic rigor, its special education procedures, and even the school’s name, which is spelled differently but pronounced the same as the existing Phoenix Charter Academy in Chelsea.

DeVito said members of the group proposing the school are planning to submit a new application for next year, and also would change the name of the school. This marks the second consecutive year the proposed Lynn charter has been rejected.

“We’ve been processing the feedback and we’re going to come up with a plan to make our proposal stronger,” said DeVito, who added that the school had more than 200 parents inquire about enrolling in its first class.

While Lynn has 26 public schools, DeVito believes the city is underserved in alternative schools that focus on preparing students for college. Currently, KIPP Academy — which has a collegiate high school and a middle school in Lynn and has applied to add an elementary school — is the sole charter in the city and has a long wait list.

DeVito is also concerned about academics. Last year, Lynn’s MCAS test warning/failure rate exceeded the state average in all grades, and just 33 percent of its high school graduates planned to attend a four-year college, compared with 58 percent in the rest of the state.

In its fight to prevent another charter from coming to the city, the Lynn School Committee created a resolution in January opposing Fenix.

The resolution stated that a new charter school would “detrimentally impact” the district, especially “English language learners” and special needs students.

Charlie Gallo, a member of the Lynn School Committee, said he was pleased with the state’s decision. “The Lynn schools are losing about $8 million a year to the existing charter school, KIPP. To take even more is asking our students and our parents and our teachers to do more with less,” he said.

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.
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