“I want to address the article in today’s Gloucester Daily Times (http://www.gloucestertimes.com/punews/local_story_262025842.html). The article was spurred by an e-mail that Secretary Reville sent to me on February 5 – during the time period in which I was considering the recommendations I would bring to the Board regarding the three applications for new charter schools (Gloucester, Waltham, and Worcester). The article questions whether Paul’s e-mail suggests that my recommendation to approve the Gloucester school was “based on [an] ‘agenda'” (to quote the article’s headline).
I want to be clear to you that my recommendations on the three charter schools were based on consideration of the wide range of input that the Board and I received and the merits of the applications. There was no end to the lobbying I encountered in regard to the three proposed charter schools – lobbying for and against. I spoke with each Board member individually (with the exception of new Board member Michael D-Ortenzio), including Secretary Reville, in the weeks prior to the February meeting. During those conversations I shared with you my considerations for the three applications. Some of you had distinct opinions (for or against approval) on specific applications and made those known to me. I felt no undue pressure from Paul or the Governor’s office regarding my recommendations. At the end of the day, the recommendations I made to you at the February Board meeting were my recommendations alone, based on my assessment of the public input and applications – based on my professional judgment.
Because substantial time has passed since the Board vote and the emotions of the Gloucester deliberations continue to swirl, I want to recap my rationale for the recommendations I made in February. I concluded that two (Waltham and Worcester) of the three applications had failed to adequately address elements that are critical to a successful new school venture. In both cases, I felt the applications had potential if they subsequently strengthened their plans and addressed missing elements. I did not recommend these two applications to the Board for approval, but did invite both applicants to resubmit their applications in the future, contingent on addressing the areas of weakness.
For me, the most compelling aspect of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School application was not the arts focus, but rather the attention to planning for the core academic components of the curriculum – including English language arts and mathematics. This strength was confirmed for me both in my internal discussions with my charter school office and through the contrast that the Gloucester Community Arts Charter application provided compared to two arts-focused charter schools that I had recently visited.
In the months prior to the February meeting I had conducted site visits to each charter school for which I was considering a recommendation to the Board for renewal with conditions or for revocation. These visits included the Conservatory Lab Charter in Boston and the Berkshire Arts and Technology (BART) Charter in Adams – both schools that have been in operation for a while, both schools that feature an arts focus, and both schools where academic performance is not as strong as it should be. Both of these schools had come to realize that their founding mission, which was focused on arts-infusion, was insufficient to ensure a strong academic curriculum for students. Simply providing a high-quality arts experience does not ensure that students develop language, mathematics, science, and social studies knowledge and skills. Both the Conservatory Lab and BART Charters were in the process of becoming more deliberate about the non-arts components of their curriculum. In both of these cases I was convinced that the schools were sufficiently redressing the deficiencies in their core academic program. I recommended to the Board, and you approved, renewals with conditions.
It is precisely the intentional focus on ensuring a strong core academic curriculum in addition to the arts focus that I found most compelling about the Gloucester school. The founders of the Gloucester Community Arts School demonstrated this to me in their application. Internal discussions with the Department’s charter school office confirmed this observation. I was convinced that the Gloucester school would be less likely than the two existing arts-focused charters – BART and Conservatory Lab – to be in a position several years after their founding where they need to revamp their approach to the core academic curriculum. In my estimation, the Gloucester Community Arts School presented strong potential for a viable, high quality school that demonstrates that an arts focus and core academics can be thoughtfully integrated. It is for this reason that I recommended the approval of their application.
One more observation about my recommendation to you: You will recall that I was quite concerned in February – based both on the input of Gloucester opponents of the school as well as on deteriorating state and federal fiscal conditions – as to whether our public schools would be adequately funded. It is for this reason that my recommendation to you included a fiscal trigger – that the Gloucester Community Arts Charter would be allowed to start up only if the Commonwealth met its foundation level funding obligation to Gloucester. Not all Board members embraced this trigger, although it was ultimately included in the resolution that authorized the school.
I remind you of this last point because, like the decision to recommend the Gloucester school for approval, the fiscal trigger represented my best professional judgment about how to proceed with our (the Commissioner’s and Board’s) statutory and regulatory responsibility in regard to the implementation of charter school policy in Massachusetts. In short, my February recommendation to you regarding the Gloucester Community Arts Charter was not the result of pressure or political calculus: it was my best professional judgment grounded in substantial consideration of the merits of the application and the input I had received.”
Mitchell D. Chester, EdD
Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
75 Pleasant Street
Malden, MA 02148
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