After showdown, all systems go at New Bedford charter school

As teachers report, Alma del Mar having no problem filling seats

THE CONTENTIOUS SHOWDOWN over a controversial New Bedford charter school plan may have faded from view, but the nuts-and-bolts work of getting a new school up and running has continued at an even more frantic pace than usual.

It was nearly two months ago that state education commissioner Jeff Riley abandoned a novel plan he first unveiled in January to have a new charter school open in New Bedford that would draw students from a geographic zone in the city and coordinate its enrollment with the district school system.

Riley touted the plan for a 450-seat charter as a compromise aimed at tempering some of the friction that has characterized relations between district and charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independent of district systems. The 450-student Alma del Mar charter school, which was to effectively serve as the neighborhood school for a section of New Bedford, was pitched as an alternative to a larger, 594-seat conventional charter school Riley was prepared to otherwise approve.

City officials were on board with the plan, saying a charter that draws students from a defined geographic area would result in a smaller hit to municipal finances, since it would allow the sort of efficiencies through reducing classrooms that are harder to realize when a charter school opens under the conventional structure, in which they draw students from across a community.

Though the plan was approved locally by the New Bedford city council and school committee, it ran into stiff headwinds on Beacon Hill, where lawmakers, led by several representing New Bedford, voiced strong opposition to the home-rule petition needed to deviate from standard charter school enrollment practices. In late May, with the school scheduled to open months later and time running short to enroll students, Riley pulled the plug on the plan. He told Alma del Mar to go ahead with the back-up plan the state had approved of a larger, conventional charter school drawing from across New Bedford.

Since that time, leaders at Alma del Mar, which already operates one charter campus in New Bedford, have been in an all-out dash to prepare to open the new school. Alma del Mar opens its doors 10 days before the district system, on August 19, and its newly hired teachers arrive for work this Monday.

Alma has hired 21 new teachers and staff for its second campus, which will temporarily occupy the shuttered Immaculate Conception parochial school while it searches for a permanent home. The school building has been given a quick makeover with fresh paint, new floor tiles and windows, and classroom whiteboards installed.

“Under normal circumstances it’s always a big lift to go from being approved for new seats in February to opening a new school in August, and of course things were not normal circumstances, and so we’re working on an even faster pace than normal,” said Will Gardner, the school’s founder and executive director.

Though the original plan called for enrolling 264 students in the first year of the new school, Alma leaders have dialed that back to 200 because of the uncertainties surrounding which school model they would be following. Gardner said planning and staff hiring over the winter and spring was based on the 450-student neighborhood-based plan that got shelved in late May. He said the school would still ramp up over several years to its approved enrollment of 594 students.

Because the school will operate as a new campus of the original Alma del Mar K-8 school, Alma officials have drawn from the existing waiting list for the first Alma school to fill seats at the new school and not held a new lottery to award seats as is typically done at new charter schools. The new Alma campus will start out enrolling students in kindergarten, first, second, and sixth grades, but ultimately will serve students in grades K-8.

In a recent CommonWealth opinion piece, New Bedford state Rep. Chris Hendricks, who originally voiced support for the neighborhood-based charter plan but then flipped and strongly opposed it, said he thought assumptions about Alma’s ability to meet enrollment targets for the new school were “unreliable,” given the steady progress he sees in the New Bedford district schools.

But Gardner said the school will have no problem filing its seats. “If we wanted to enroll 500 families we could,” he said, pointing to the existing waiting list. “And if we wanted to hold another lottery next week, we could and we’d get even more families.”

Though he’s been preoccupied with getting the new school ready after plans for the neighborhood-based charter were abandoned, Gardner said it was unfortunate that the compromise plan did not take. “I think any time you put that much thought and effort into something, it’s disappointing to not see it come to light,” he said, crediting Riley’s “forward thinking” willingness to bring the idea to the table.

“We teach our scholars to take bold and positive risks and try new things and learn from them,” he said, employing the term used by the school for its students. “And I certainly think that’s something all of us did in this case.”

One thing Gardner said he learned from the experience was how widely one misconception about charter schools had taken hold. Critics have charged that the schools don’t enroll a cross-section of students at the same rate as district schools, including particularly challenging populations, such as English language learners and special needs children. Gardner said Alma was excited by the prospect of being the default school that would enroll all students in a section of New Bedford.

“I think the fact that there were people who were surprised that we would accept neighborhood enrollment opened our eyes up to how much the kinds of myths about schools like ours have sunk in in some quarters,” he said.

Meet the Author

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.

“The lottery is not central to our mission,” he said of the conventional method by which charters select students from a pool of interested families. “It’s just the way the state has come up with to allocate a scarce resource like ours.”

Pointing to the closer relationship he formed with New Bedford superintendent Thomas Anderson during the negotiations for a neighborhood-based charter school, Gardner said, “All of us — the superintendent, myself, and parochial schools — we’re just all trying to create as many great schools as we can for kids and families in New Bedford.”