‘Collaboration is the answer’: Alma’s expansion plans approved

Posted Jan 22, 2019 at 8:37 AM

MALDEN — Alma del Mar leader Will Gardner and New Bedford Superintendent Thomas Anderson sat side by side before the Board of the Elementary and Secondary Education Tuesday morning, awaiting a vote on their new collaboration revealed last week.

“Seeing the two school leaders sitting next to each other with this sort of tone and this sort of uniting mindset is going to be one of the finest visual memories I’m going to have in my time serving on this board,” said member Michael Moriarty of Holyoke.

The board approved two motions for Alma del Mar Charter School. First, the board granted Alma 450 additional seats for K-8, under a few conditions including a memorandum of understanding and necessary legislation, allowing the collaboration with the city to move forward.

Last Monday, Commissioner Jeffrey Riley recommended that Alma del Mar expand to a second site that the city owns but isn’t using; officials have said the site will be the former Kempton School, serving 450 students. Under this plan, the city is set to redistrict, including Alma’s second campus, where some students will be assigned instead of going through the typical lottery.

If that plan doesn’t work under the collaboration, then Alma would be granted 594 seats, half of its original request.

Member Mary Ann Stewart of Lexington voted no on both motions, while member Ed Doherty of Boston abstained from the first motion and voted no on the second.

Stewart said that the board heard from the Massachusetts Teachers Association at the meeting and received a letter from State Rep. Chris Hendricks in opposition. She also noted challenges with funding in K-12 education and the 2016 vote against expanding charter schools.

“We should not have any new approvals of charter schools,” she said.

Doherty, who served as president of the Boston Teachers Union for 20 years, according to the state education department website, told The Standard-Times that in general, he’s philosophically opposed to the expansion of charter schools. He noted his vote isn’t reflective positively or negatively on what the school does.

He said the amount of money that’s taken away from public schools for charter schools is a major educational problem, especially for students in low income communities.

After the votes passed, Gardner told The Standard-Times that Alma is “laser focused” on opening the new school, hopefully at the former Kempton School, in August to serve 200 new students in kindergarten, first, second and sixth grades.

“We’re hopeful about the agreement between Alma and the city and the commissioner,” Gardner said. “We have some serious work to do in the weeks ahead.”

Anderson told the board he believes that Alma del Mar leaders share a similar focus and the partnership opportunity clarifies that understanding. “My focus is to forge ahead as collaborative partners to serve the best interest of students,” he said.

The MOU needs to be taken care of within 45 days of the letter of intent being signed and it needs to be approved by Riley. Alma del Mar needs to submit a draft enrollment policy as soon as possible that reflects the negotiated integrated enrollment process with the city district and the proposed growth plan. That, too, will need Riley’s approval.

Under the conditions, Alma should promptly and effectively communicate with the education department regarding significant matters relevant to the suitability and readiness of the new campus.

“By agreeing to the establishment of a 450 student, neighborhood-based charter school, the city will have avoided the significantly higher costs of the alternate proposal of nearly 600 students in a choice-based school,” Mayor Jon Mitchell said in a statement. “It is a much fairer way to do charter schools – fairer to the city, fairer to taxpayers and fairer to students in our district schools. Until state law is fixed to account for the enormous expense of charter school expansion on local taxpayers, the New Bedford approach will lead to a better result for cities facing new charter applications.”

After two parents of Alma del Mar students spoke in favor of the school’s plans, a couple of education attorneys from the Justice Center of Southeast Massachusetts, a subsidiary of South Coastal Counties Legal Services, said they provide direct representation to low income families in education matters and work closely with family and community members in New Bedford.

They said they were at the meeting to raise ongoing concerns about Alma’s current ability to serve high-needs students, which should be considered in discussions on expansions. They also acknowledged apparent high in-school and out-of-school suspension rates, particularly for students with disabilities.

Elizabeth Levitan, an attorney with the Youth Advocacy Foundation and Law Project, spoke on behalf of a group of attorneys and advocates from across the Commonwealth working to advocate for school discipline reform. Charter schools remain among the highest suspending schools in the state, she said. She encouraged the commissioner and the board to consider suspension rates on charter renewals and expansions, such as with Alma. She asked for a condition on the expansion of Alma on improvement of disciplinary practices to better serve students.

Parent Kristin Raffa has a 6-year-old daughter at Alma and a 9-year-old son at Pulaski Elementary, the same school she attended as a child.

“My daughter is that student that opponents would have you believe gets counseled out of the charter school programs,” she told the board. Her daughter has an extensive IEP, she said, has been embraced by Alma’s high-support model and is “thriving in her own unique little way.”

Gardner said the school is building a culture team around student support including a social emotional specialist, adding professional development around trauma-informed instruction, partnering with outside groups along with hiring a social worker to provide additional counseling.

Members of the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools were in the packed audience, including co-chair Ricardo Rosa. After the meeting, he noted that this type of partnership could be used as a model for other cities and towns. “That tells us where we’re going,” he said. He said most of the board comes from communities that are drastically different from New Bedford, which is “problematic” and they should visit the city.

Member Margaret McKenna, president emeritus of Lesley University, said, “Collaboration is the answer for kids, not fighting each other.”

Follow Aimee Chiavaroli on Twitter @AimeeC_SCT.

Original story here.