Bay State Charter Campaign Gets A Black Eye in Brockton: New Heights Charter Unlikely to Open on Main St.

Merian New Heights

When New Heights received its charter from the State in June, executive director Omari Walker (second from right) posed with Commissioner Mitchell Chester (second from left) and Secretary of Education Jim Peyser (far right.)   Photo from New Heights website

The controversial New Heights Charter School won’t be moving into the space above the tuxedo-rental store and shuttered bridal shop on Main St., in downtown Brockton, MA., this September.

“They are not moving in; not coming into this building,” says John Merian, whose family has owned the building on Main St. for over 30 years. Merian won’t say more about how New Heights’ plan to renovate and occupy the Main Street space went awry, noting there are legal issues to be resolved.

As readers of this blog know, the New Heights proposal was approved by the state despite overwhelming opposition from the community, which is home to Brockton High, the states largest high school, as well as the single most successful school turnaround in Massachusetts history, which I’ve written about here and here.

So far, New Heights has said only that it is postponing its move-in date, according to The Enterprise, a local newspaper:

“New Heights recently submitted an amendment request to the Department to shorten year one of their school year from 184 days to 180 days to accommodate renovation delays,” said Lauren Greene, assistant to the chief of staff at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in an email to The Enterprise. The request is still under consideration by the state, Greene said.

The New Heights website requests that applicants send mail to a post office box, noting “our building, 141 Main Street, is under construction.”

But the phone listed on the school’s website is a non-working number.

Omari Walker, executive director at New Heights, has said of the Merians—John runs the business with his brother Paul: “They have been some of the only folks to stand beside us…. ”

Merian, by contrast, insists that the decision to rent space to the charter school was “just a real estate deal.”

Adds Merian, a compact man with black hair and carefully trimmed door-knocker goatee: “I continue to be supportive of Brockton Public Schools, always will be.”

Merian 1

John Merian with three of his four children, all of whom attended Brockton public schools, on the eve of his daughter’s Brockton High prom

Merian has become an unlikely protagonist in a years-long battle against bringing a charter school to Brockton, a once thriving industrial city that, years ago, lost its storied shoe industry to foreign rivals. Once a working-class city of mostly European immigrants, like Merian’s Armenian grandparents who fled Turkey in the early 20th century, the  city now has a large population of newcomers from Haiti and Cape Verde.

Today, Merian is the rare business leader who supports his city’s public schools. Although Merian’s parents, who started the family bridal business, sent him to a local private school, Merian chose to send all four of his children to Brockton public schools; three of his children are now in college, a fourth is still in middle school. Paul sent his two children too. “Every public school system should look at what Brockton did,” says Merian, referring, in particular, to the high school from which six Merians will have graduated.

Indeed, Merian has worked closely with two principals at Brockton High—Sue Szachowicz who led the school’s legendary turnaround, as well as Szachowitz’s successor Sharon Wolder. Merian, who rents tuxedos for Brockton proms, also runs the school’s dress-for-success day and has worked with the school’s entrepreneurship classes on developing marketing skills.

Merian Sue

Sue Szachowicz, former principal of Brockton High, stopped by the Marien’s home shortly before the senior prom, just months after she had retired in 2013.

Over the years, most local businesses have either closed—like the bridal business that was started by Merian’s mother, Alyce Reizian—or moved out of Brockton. But the Merians have doubled down on their down-at-the-heels hometown.

Each winter, Merian dons a red cap trimmed in white fur and runs the annual Holiday Day parade down Main Street as the self-appointed chief elf, a post-Thanksgiving event that he calls “the ultimate community gathering” in a downtown with little left to boast about except that it once had the first department-store Santa. Edgar’s, originator of the department-store Santa and Brockton’s last major retailer, closed in the 1980s

But the decision to stay in Brockton has been challenging. Merian recently opened a fire restoration business that helps salvage clothing damaged in fires. He has diversified and now sells suits. And he uses the internet like a teleflorist, he says, to expand sales state-wide, taking measurements of tuxedo customers online and then visiting schools to deliver the suits and do last-minute adjustments.

Leasing the 30,000-square-foot space above the family’s store to New Heights promised to bring in $281,295 annually. A steady stream of kids and teachers and families trooping through Main Street each day also would help revitalize the downtown, Merian hoped.

That doesn’t look likely now. Whatever its real estate problems, New Heights also has fallen short of its enrollment targets.  In its first year, New Heights had expected to enroll 315 students, from grades six through eight; eventually the school expected to double in size and add high school grades. But as of the July 19, the Brockton School Committee had received only 170 required transfer requests for grades 6 to 8. The school is also expecting to hold another lottery for new students on August 23, prompting one reader of the local newspaper, the Enterprise, to post: “Why are they holding a FOURTH lottery if they have only a little over ½ the seats filled. Shouldn’t it be just first come, first served at this point?”

Merian building

New Heights was to lease 30,000 square feet above the Merians’s tuxedo store and the new-shuttered bridal store founded by the family matriarch, Alyce Reizian

New Heights problems offer an ironic twist to one of the highest-stakes charter-school dramas in the country. This November, Massachusetts residents will vote in a referendum on whether to lift the Commonwealth’s cap on charter schools—a measure backed by Charlie Baker, the state’s Republican governor, and Jim Peyser, the secretary of education; both men are said to be charter-school zealots. The ballot initiative comes complete with a multi-million dollar publicity campaign designed by the firm that developed the notorious Swift-boat ads that sank John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid and financed, in part, by deep-pocketed charter advocates from out of state.

Once again, Brockton residents find themselves on the front lines of the battle over education reform. Nearly 25 years ago, a class-action lawsuit filed by a student at Brockton High, charging that Massachusetts was failing to provide “adequate” funding for its schools, led to the Commonwealth’s historic education reform act of 1993. The Massachusetts reforms, in turn, helped spark the historic turnaround at Brockton High.

Now, a new generation of reformers are convinced that what towns like Brockton need is competition in the form of charter schools. Except this time, Brockton residents are fighting the reformers. The town defeated New Heights’s first proposal two years ago, at least in part, because of the school’s failure to address Brockton’s sizeable English Language Learner population. Opponents of New Heights Charter School’s latest proposal, which was approved last February, included the local newspaper, The Enterprise, which says it is generally “supportive” of charter schools. It included, the mayor of Brockton, city council members, state representatives, members of the local school committee and, yes, parents.

The State pushed through approval of the Brockton charter, arguing in part, that there is great demand for schools like New Heights. Brocktonians beg to differ.

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