Brockton’s Charter Fiasco Continues As Controversial School Prepares to Leave Town

A controversial charter school that was approved for Brockton, MA against overwhelming local opposition is now preparing to leave Brockton. The New Heights Charter School is now awaiting approval from Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of Massachusetts public schools, to move to a temporary location in neighboring Norwood, after multiple construction snafus in Brockton have kept the school from opening there, prompting local residents to wonder: How was this fiasco-of-a-charter ever approved in the first place?

Or, as Sue Szachowicz, the former principal of Brockton put it, in an email to me yesterday:  “I can’t believe this bumbling group was granted a charter.”

Amid an escalating battle over a statewide ballot initiative, this November, that would lift the cap on charter schools in Massachussetts, the Brockton charter mess highlights the greatest fears of charter skeptics, including:

–A sloppy approval process, and this in a state that prides itself on having the most rigorous charter approval process in the nation.

–A political establishment that ran rough-shod over the wishes of the local community.

–As families give up on the charter, which has enrolled about 200 students so far, well below its expected first-year enrollment of 315 students, for grades six through eight, they have already begun to return back to the public school system, wreaking havoc with enrollments.

As readers of this blog know, the New Heights charter was approved earlier this year over intense local opposition and after the organization’s first charter was derailed in 2015, at least in part, by the school’s failure to address Brockton’s large population of English Language Learners. At the time, in a scathing 14-page analysis of New Heights Charter School’s application to the state board, local officials, including School Superintendent Kathleen Smith and Mayor Bill Carpenter, urged the state to reject the application noting that the proposal “lacks services and supports for English language learners and students with disabilities.”

Within a year, New Heights had renewed its request for a charter, having addressed some of the flaws in its former proposal. Once again, the opposition was widespread. Opponents of New Heights’ application include 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—lots of them.

The New Heights Charter School will not serve Brockton’s diverse educational needs,  charged Tom Minichiello, vice chair of the Brockton School Committee: “Let’s look at what students the charter school wants: not our 30-plus percent English language learner population or our approximately 14 percent special education population. No, charter advocates want students from our grades 6-12 student population that testing shows are making progress. The data shows that the longer students remain within the Brockton school system, the more successful the test results.”

Indeed, Brockton is home to the largest and one of the poorest high schools in Massachusetts, and one of its greatest public school success stories .

The new charter, which plans to add high school grades, threatens Brockton’s steady trajectory. Were the charter to open, the Brockton school district expects to lose $10 million in funding, about 6 percent of its annual school budget. Tight budgets already have led to a net loss of funding at Brockton during the last two years. In the 2014-15 school year, Brockton High had to cut four teachers who taught electives in nutrition, cooking and personal finance. The school also has lost teachers via attrition. The result of a new charter, which expects to add high school classes, may be larger class sizes, which for many subjects at Brockton High already average around 35 students per class, according to Brockton’s new principal, Sharon Wolder.

New Heights has already postponed the start of school once. Yet, its founder is unapologetic. This is what Omari Walker, executive direc tof the New Heights Charter School told The Enterprise, the local newspaper: “The only thing I care about is the opinions of my family, friends, and families from my school.”

That disdain for the impact Walker’s school will have on the local community and its public schools, pretty much sums up a major critique of charter schools in general. It’s a disdain that Chester, Secretary of Education Jim Peyser, Gov. Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, all major proponents of the upcoming ballot initiative, seem to share.

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, Massachusetts schools and children would benefit from more nuanced education policy, such as a draft law, known as the Rise Act, which sought to address many of the problems that have dogged the charter industry, including lack of transparency and community involvement. The Rise Act, which went no where, sought, among other things, to strengthen community involvement by requiring charters to have parents on their boards and by increasing the ability of local school committees to reject charters in their communities.

Had Brockton had that power, the New Heights fiasco would never have happened.

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