Fear and loathing on Haverhill school vote

Fear and loathing on Haverhill school vote

Charter school at the center of charged debate

THE SILVER HILL Horace Mann Charter School in Haverhill is seeking a five-year extension of its charter, but the seemingly routine process has mushroomed into a high-stakes battle reminiscent of last fall’s statewide ballot fight over charter school expansion.

Members of the Haverhill teachers union will vote next week on whether to allow the K-5 school to proceed with its renewal application. Some 500 Haverhill teachers will decide in the June 15 vote whether the 35 or so of their colleagues at Silver Hill can continue working under a model that teachers and parents at the school embrace and that has shown strong gains for students.

The looming vote has set loose raw emotions on both sides and prompted a volley of harsh words, including the local union president charging that the school’s admission policies are “tantamount to segregation.”

Setting the debate in motion is Silver Hill’s status as a Horace Mann charter school, a designation that puts it in a gray zone in the state’s constellation of local public schools.

Silver Hill students showed up at Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini’s office hours in mid-May to make the case for their school. The mayor was non-committal. (Photo courtesy of Mike Murphy)

The vast majority of charter schools in Massachusetts are Commonwealth charters – schools operated entirely independent of school districts. A handful of charters, however, exist under the Horace Mann model, in which schools are granted a great deal of autonomy but are still connected to a district system and are staffed by union teachers who are employed through the local school district.

In 2006, with Silver Hill struggling with very low student achievement and facing possible state takeover, Haverhill district leaders obtained state approval to convert it to a Horace Mann charter. The school opened under a charter model in 2008. It has made strong gains and is now a Level 1 school, the highest level in the state’s accountability-ranking structure.

Horace Mann charters are, in a sense, neither fish nor fowl when it comes to the usual distinction made between district and charter schools – and that is the root of the conflict now playing out.

When Silver Hill sought renewal of its charter after its initial five years and when it subsequently needed an amendment to that plan, the Haverhill teachers union president signed off on the application once it was approved by teachers at Silver Hill. But with the school’s charter now up for another renewal, Lisa Begley, who took over last year as president of the Haverhill Education Association, says all the teachers in the Haverhill union must be allowed to vote. She says she opened up the voting to the entire membership after reaching out to the Massachusetts Teachers Association for advice on how to handle the application.

Begley says the overarching concern with the school is that its demographics don’t mirror those of the Haverhill district or of a nearby elementary school in the section of Haverhill where Silver Hill is located.

Of the 567 students enrolled at Silver Hill, 18.7 percent are Hispanic, 3.9 percent are English language learners, and 24.7 percent are from low-income households. The Haverhill district has roughly double that representation of Hispanic students and English language learners, and a 75 percent higher rate of economically disadvantaged students.  At the nearby Tilton Elementary School, Hispanic students represent 48.9 percent of the population, English language learners account for 17.2 percent, and 67.2 are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

In a May 23 letter to the school, Begley pressed Silver Hill to “amend its admission policy” in order to shift its demographics. Begley suggested that if that change and other “requests” were met, the union would “actively publicize the measures that you are taking” to its members in advance of next week’s vote. The clear implication was that agreeing to her terms would improve the school’s chances in the citywide vote among teachers.

Begley’s letter asks the school to change its admission process from “a blind lottery to one that gives preference to economically disadvantaged students.”

State law, however, prohibits charter schools from giving preference to any group other than siblings of current students in its lottery for open seats.

In an interview on Wednesday, Begley seemed to back away from the idea that the union was demanding a change in the lottery system. “We’re just trying to get them to think about ways they can change the demographics, just trying to brainstorm,” Begley said. “That wasn’t something we were saying they absolutely had to do.”

But when Euthemia Gilman, chairman of the Silver Hill board of trustees, responded with a letter dated May 26 that cited the state law governing the lottery system for charter schools, Begley doubled down on the issue.

In a letter in response dated June 2, she repeated the call to give preference to economically disadvantaged students. Begley suggested putting the name of each of such students into the lottery twice to improve their chances, a system that she said “would still meet the statutory requirement of a blind lottery.”

“What they’re proposing is still for us to give an advantage to a particular group of students. That is illegal,” Gilman said in interview this week.

State education officials confirmed that Begley’s idea would violate state law in a letter to her on Thursday. Charter schools must give preference to siblings of current students and residents of the district where they’re located, wrote Claire Smithney, coordinator of accountability in the state charter school office. “The charter school statute does not require or permit preference in enrollment for any other categories of students,” wrote Smithney.

Charter schools are required to have recruitment plans aimed at enrolling a population that is demographically comparable to the schools in the district where they are located. Silver Hill leaders acknowledge their need to do better at this, and say their renewal application sets out steps they are taking to address the concern.

As for the issue of English language learners, Gilman says the school has faced “a Catch-22.”

Margaret Shepherd, the Silver Hill principal, said Haverhill school officials, who maintain control of registration at the school, won’t allow English language learners to enroll if they fall into the category of higher-language needs because the school does not have a dedicated teacher assigned to such students.

“When they go to register, they were told that we did not have the program and they couldn’t come even if they won the lottery,” she said at a Silver Hill board of trustees meeting this week.

Shepherd says it’s up to the school department to assign Silver Hill a teacher with those credentials. She said other Haverhill schools also don’t have high-need ELL teachers, and that ELL students needing those services are also steered away from those schools to other schools that do have full ELL programs. Begley insisted that Silver Hill could rework its budget to hire another ELL teacher on its own.

Shepherd said the school was able to enroll a high-need ELL student for the coming year, and she expects that to trigger assignment of a high-need ELL teacher for the fall. That would open the way for many more ELL students to be assigned to the school, she said.

In an effort to boost Silver Hill’s enrollment of ELL students and expand its Hispanic student population, City Councilor Andy Vargas, the first Latino ever elected to the Haverhill City Council, joined the school’s board of trustees last year and helped the school coordinate Latino recruitment. School officials say the effort led to a 91 percent increase this year in the number of Latino children applying for seats at the school.

In her most recent letter to the school, Begley said that Silver Hill’s “admission policies are tantamount to segregation, which is undesirable in any form.”

It’s a loaded accusation. But none of the admission policies that the union has objected to were devised by Silver Hill leaders; they are mandated by the state law governing admission to public charter schools.

“That’s just an ugly charge,” said Mike Murphy, a Silver Hill parent. “Ten days out from the vote, we’re still having these discussions on fundamental issues that Silver Hill has no control over. It feels like we’re caught up in this larger political issue involving charter schools.”

In order for the charter renewal application to move forward, it must be approved not only by a majority vote of the union, but also by a vote of the Haverhill School Committee.

School leaders say they are confident that the school committee would approve the renewal, but it may not make it onto the school committee agenda if it’s rejected next week by the union.

Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini seems to be taking a hands-off approach to the issue, despite his role as chairman of the school committee.

“I’d rather wait to say anything,” Fiorentini said recently about the upcoming union vote. “It may not be something that comes before me or the school committee.”

School leaders and some parents are convinced that Fiorentini does not support Silver Hill’s charter renewal.

Laura Wrisley, a mother of three young children, the oldest of whom is finishing second grade at the school, attended a recent session of the mayor’s office hours along with other parents and a number of Silver Hill students.

“You kind of think when you go the mayor’s office and you have a problem with the public schools he will be a key part of that, but he kind of just put his hands up and said it has nothing to do with me,” said Wrisely. “He claims he can do nothing about it.”

Gilman says the issue has split the union, a situation made even more tense, she said, by the fact that there are union teachers at other schools whose own children attend Silver Hill.

“I am SADDENED by the lack of support by the other teachers in the district,” wrote Silver Hill teacher Kerri Alves on the union’s Facebook page, which has become a town square for debate on the looming vote. “Shouldn’t we as a DISTRICT support each other? Does it make sense to annihilate another EDUCATIONAL environment for families in the district?”

“I just don’t see how you could vote against your colleagues for working on something that you’re all working towards – how to improve education in your public schools,” said Devan Ferreira, a parent who has two children at Silver Hill and a third entering kindergarten there in the fall.

“This is a good school, it’s doing good work, it has really great teachers,” said Murphy. “We want every school to be great in Haverhill.” Murphy said low funding of Haverhill schools overall is in many ways the real source of frustration across the district. “But taking down the charter at Silver Hill doesn’t fix any of that.”

If the union leadership “would take the same amount of energy and applied it towards the city administration on funding for the whole system, who knows where we would be,” he said.

Begley says it is a coincidence that the Silver Hill renewal has become a flashpoint on the heels of last fall’s contentious ballot question campaign over charter schools. “This has nothing to do with that,” she said.

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

As for the idea that the upcoming vote is pitting her members against one another, she said, “I hope that wouldn’t be case. Sometimes we have to agree to disagree on things. I still have a very good relationship with teachers over at Silver Hill.”