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Franklin

Charter school seeks to grow, expand reach

A charter school in Franklin is looking to double its enrollment and accept more students from neighboring towns, and one school district potentially affected has voiced concerns over the proposal.

Benjamin Franklin Classical Charter Public School submitted an amendment to its charter to the state in August that would allow for an increase in enrollment from 450 to 900. The amendment would also turn the school into a regional charter school, opening enrollment equally to students in 14 nearby communities along with Franklin. The school is expected to submit further information on the proposal later this month.

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Charter schools like the one in Franklin operate independently of local school districts and without some of the strictures of traditional public schools, such as teacher contracts. For each student a public school district loses to a charter school, it also loses state funding equal to the amount it spends per pupil. The state allocates that money to the charter school.

A review of the Franklin proposal by the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to be done in March and a decision will probably come in April, according to department spokesman Jonathan Considine.

The school, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade, had originally hoped to begin the enrollment expansion in the 2015-16 school year, but is now aiming for the following year, head of school Heather Zolnowski said.

“Our board has been discussing this for five or six years,” Zolnowski said. “We felt our wait list was strong enough to add additional seats. The chances of getting in right now are so slim.”

The proposed regional territory includes Bellingham, Millville, Blackstone, Holliston, Hopedale, Medway, Mendon, Upton, Milford, Millis, Norfolk, Plainville, Walpole, and Wrentham.

Hoping to grow

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Zolnowski said the school identified the communities it wished to add based on a combination of enrollment requests and attendance at enrollment information sessions.

As part of the state education department’s initial review of the amendment, area school districts potentially affected were notified. The Millville-Blackstone School District sent a letter outlining its concerns in September, Interim Superintendent Perry P. Davis said.

“I’m not against charter schools, but in this particular case, we have space for more students, and we have grants to repair our roof that will allow us to use our facility for another 20 years,” Davis said.

Davis said facilities at Millville-Blackstone had space for a 10 percent increase in student population, and he did not see a need for more public school options in the district.

Zolnowski said families in nearby communities want alternatives to public school, particularly the classical education program the charter school provides, which focuses on education through reading, writing, and the spoken word.

The school has consistently beaten state test score averages by a significant margin. Last year, 100 percent of the school’s eighth-graders scored proficient or better in English, compared with 78 percent statewide; 82 percent reached at least proficient in math, compared with 55 percent in the state; and 78 percent were at least proficient in science, compared with 39 percent statewide, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“Family-wise, there is definitely an interest in an atmosphere based in classical education,” Zolnowski said. “I understand the concerns of districts, but I think when they see the number of students we would have enrolled from a district, they won’t be as concerned.”

Christopher Martes, interim school superintendent in Wrentham, said he isn’t concerned with the proposal because only one Wrentham student currently attends the Franklin-based charter school, and he does not anticipate a significant loss in enrollment.

“I haven’t heard anyone discuss it in the community this year,” Martes said. “Based on history, I don’t think it will have an impact on Wrentham.”

Plainville Superintendent David P. Raiche said his district, which has 770 students enrolled in kindergarten through sixth grade, also wasn’t concerned over the potential impact of an expanded charter school option.

“Right now, we do not send any students there,” Raiche said. “I’m not anticipating we would see much change here. I believe the parents here are pleased with the schools, and usually people pleased with their schools stay.”

Franklin Schools Superintendent Maureen Sabolinski did not return multiple calls for comment.

If the enrollment increase is approved, Benjamin Franklin Classical plans to move into a new facility and add 40 new students per grade in kindergarten through fourth grade in the first year of expansion. The school would reach 900 students following gradual enrollment increases over a 10-year span, Zolnowski said.

The proposed changes to the charter are more significant than the state education department typically sees, spokesman Considine said.

“Oftentimes, when schools expand it is gradual,” Considine said. “Adding 200 students in the first year is fairly robust. We want to be sure they have the capacity and the enrollment interest.”

School policy gives siblings of current students first priority in enrollment, followed by Franklin residents, then families from anywhere in the state. Enrollment requests are high enough from Franklin families to annually fill incoming kindergarten classes, Zolnowski. The only way families outside the town are accepted are through openings in later grades, she said.

The regionalization proposal, which would give students from all participating towns equal chance at admittance, could hurt the chances of Franklin families looking to get accepted at the school. But the school is focused on providing a classical education to families that want it, not serving the town, Zolnowski said.

“It will change their chances of getting in, but we have interest outside of just the Franklin community,” she said. “We don’t look at ourselves as just Franklin. We try not to associate with the town.”

The school plans to submit more detailed information surrounding its finances, facilities, and enrollment demands to the state later this month, after its enrollment period ends on Feb. 24, Zolnowski said.

In January, the school’s board of trustees president Donald Tappin wrote a letter to parents, urging them to get the word out about the school and increase enrollment requests before the deadline.

“One of the metrics that the [state] will be looking at is the historical and current demand for seats at [Benjamin Franklin Charter], evidenced by our application numbers from this year’s lottery,” the letter said. “Now, more than ever, we need your help to increase awareness in Franklin and the surrounding communities of what a wonderful place [Benjamin Franklin Charter] is for our students and families.”

Founded in 1996, the school has been at maximum enrollment for the last two years, but maintained a waiting list every year prior to that as part of a deliberate “slow build” plan, Zolnowski said. The school leases a building on Main Street in Franklin owned by the Archdiocese of Boston, but has been looking into relocation options, Zolnowski said.

“We’re splitting at the seams,” she said. “We cannot fit another student, teacher, or service provider.”

Jarret Bencks can be reached at jbbencks@gmail.com.
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