Haverhill teachers union rejects charter renewal

Haverhill teachers union rejects charter renewal

Vote follows months of bitter debate

AFTER MONTHS OF ACRIMONY in Haverhill, the city’s teachers union voted Thursday to block the renewal of the Silver Hill Horace Mann Charter School, dealing a crushing blow to faculty and families at the K-5 school who say it had become a model of creative, quality education in the city.

Members of the Haverhill Education Association voted 246-114 to reject Silver Hill’s bid to seek a five-year renewal of its charter from the state. Lisa Begley, the union president, said in a statement announcing the results that the main concern driving teachers to oppose the renewal was that Silver Hill, which enrolls students through a blind lottery, did not serve as many high-need students as it did in the past and that it served far fewer of these students than two nearby district schools.

“It was a fairness issue, pure and simple,” Begley said in a statement, charging that Silver Hill’s lower enrollment of English language learners and students from low-income homes put greater burdens on district schools, including putting them at greater risk for sanctions under the state accountability system.

Unlike Commonwealth charter schools, which operate completely independently of school districts, the Horace Mann model, which was authorized in the late 1990s, tries to strike a balance between the full autonomy of Commonwealth charters and centrally-run district systems. Horace Mann charters have wide latitude over curriculum, professional development and the schedule of the school day, but they are staffed by teachers who are employed by the district and members of the local teachers union. A Horace Mann application requires the approval of the local school committee and the teachers union.

Past renewals of the Silver Hill charter were approved with the support of the union teachers at the school. But Begley, who was not union president during those applications, said she sought advice from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Haverhill union’s statewide parent union, and was told that the full citywide membership of the union was allowed to vote on a Horace Mann renewal.

That set loose several months of bitter citywide debate and led to division within the union.

The vote may not spell the end of Silver Hill’s efforts to embrace more autonomy than traditional district schools, however, as school leaders say they plan to seek approval to use another model that gives schools more independence.

Silver Hill leaders conceded they could do more to recruit high-needs students — and pointed to recent outreach efforts targeting Hispanic families — but they also took issue with some of the criticism. School officials said Silver Hill’s 3.9 percent enrollment of English language learners, for example, was partly driven by the district policy of only allowing beginning English learners to enroll at select schools in the district that were staffed with teachers designated for such high-need students. The comparison of Silver Hill’s demographics with two nearby district schools also overlooks the fact that Horace Mann charter schools, by law, serve as citywide choice schools, with families anywhere in the district able to enter the lottery for seats at the school.

During the run-up to yesterday’s vote, Begley asked the school to modify its admission policy to give preference in the lottery to economically disadvantaged students, and suggested such a change might prompt teachers to support the renewal. State education officials wrote to Begley, telling her state law forbids any such preference in the lottery for charter school seats.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Euthemia Gilman, chairman of the Silver Hill board of trustees, following announcement of the results of the union vote.

Silver Hill was struggling with chronically low achievement and facing possible state sanctions in 2006 when leaders at the school and in the Haverhill district turned to the idea of converting it to a Horace Mann charter. The school opened under the in-district charter model in 2008. Gilman was the school principal at the time who spearheaded the conversion efforts. She retired in 2011, but came back last year to serve as chairman of the school’s board of trustees.

The school rose to the top level in the state accountability system measuring student growth and achievement. Gilman said it was able to launch free, full-day kindergarten — the only school in Haverhill to do so — offer a rich program of professional development to teachers, and implement innovative new curriculum in writing, math, and other areas.

Margaret Shepherd, the current Silver Hill principal, called it “a very sad day for the children and families in Haverhill.”

Though expressing disappointment in the vote, Gilman said she wants to see Silver Hill now convert to an “innovation school” when its charter expires in June 2018. Innovation schools, which were authorized by a 2010 update of the state’s education reform law, have much of the same autonomy as Horace Mann charters. One crucial difference, however, is that they only require approval of teachers at the school, not the entire union membership, along with that of the local school committee.

As an innovation school, Silver Hill would draw students from its surrounding neighborhoods and no longer be a citywide school. That change would address any of the concerns raised about its student demographics, said Gilman.

“The paperwork done for the charter renewal is the same paperwork” required for an innovation school application, she said. “To me the glass is always half full.”

Parents and staff at Silver Hill say it got caught in the continued anti-charter fallout following last November’s divisive ballot question campaign on expansion of Commonwealth charter schools. They charged that the vote by the Haverhill union was part of a broader push by the Mass. Teachers Association against charters in any form.

Begley, the Haverhill union president, insisted that the vote was not part of any MTA-inspired campaign.

There is, nonetheless, an element of irony in the vote, as the Horace Mann charter model was developed with input from the MTA. Horace Manns were even once the subject of a presentation on innovative school models at an MTA conference, according to a 2003 article in CommonWealth on efforts at the time to bring several Horace Mann charter schools to Barnstable.

The Horace Mann model has never caught on in the state, however. There are currently 69 Commonwealth charter schools, but only nine Horace Mann charters.

“Horace Mann charters have come to represent, in essence, the road not taken,” said a 2006 report from the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy. “Horace Mann charters represent a potential compromise within this polarized field, and may serve as a catalyst for broader educational improvement in the Commonwealth. However, thus far, there has been scarce interest in exploring this strategy.”

As a compromise between Commonwealth charters and traditional district schools, however, Horace Manns seem to have lacked the full autonomy to make them attractive to would-be charter leaders, while still exercising enough independence to be a source of tension with district officials and teachers unions.

Silver Hill not only drew the opposition of teachers at other Haverhill schools, it had little support from Mayor James Fiorentini, who serves as chairman of the school committee and declined to speak out in support of the school.

“Under the best circumstances,” said the Rennie Center report, “Horace Mann charters might bridge the best of the charter movement and the best of regular public schools — and, in so doing, diffuse some of the divisiveness inherent in conceptions of charters and regular public schools as wholly distinct entities competing for scarce resource.”

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 report added an important caution, however, noting that “Horace Mann charters require the very constituents who have the most reason to oppose charters — unions and district leaders — to support charterization of their own schools.”

In Haverhill, which is bisected by the Merrimack River, that proved to be a bridge too far.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    If it’s about charter schools then CommonWealth is all over it. If it’s about the failure of Massachusetts to fully fund its obligations to local public schools under the 1993 Education Reform Act then CommonWealth can’t be bothered to write about it. What does CommonWealth stand to gain by having such one-sided coverage of K-12 education in this state? I can’t figure it out.

    • jshore

      Commonwealth Magazine is the advertorial repository to push the agenda of nonpartisan(?) “think tank” MASSINC. They are just sour grapes because they prided themselves on “Leading the Gateway Cities in the creation of Education Reform Strategy” which amounts to privatizing education for those vulture investors looking for tax credits, deprofessionalizing the Teaching Profession in urban school districts, so they can secure a low wage service sector workforce to maintain the status quo of all those living in toney suburbs. Very important now that Trump has given the OK to ICEgov, and there is a witch hunt on undocumented workers.

      While you’re waiting to read the comment I posted last night, that is awaiting moderation, look up MASSINC/Commonwealth’s finances on TBF’s “Giving Commons,” an interesting read: https://givingcommon.org/profile/1092559/the-massachusetts-institute-for-a-new-commonwealth-inc-massinc/

      • Mhmjjj2012

        First of all, it’s unlikely your comment will see the light of day. I have two comments “pending” with CommonWealth on one article dating back 17 days ago. Good luck with your comment. Can you give a summary of what’s going on with TBF’s “Giving Commons?” I have my grandchild visiting this weekend so the best I can do is put it on my “to do” list for sometime next week.

        • Jack Sullivan

          Mhmjjj2012, I went back to when you first started posting in September, 2015. There have been 816 comments and all have been approved and posted. You made a comment on one story (“Charting common ground”) about another post you made regarding Marty Walz that you said was not approved. But that comment was on “U turn on internet privacy.” Perhaps you either posted in the wrong story or looked in the wrong story. Comments are automatically approved unless they are deemed spam or contain profanity. We do not censor comments and your 816 posts are proof of that.

          • Mhmjjj2012

            Jack, thanks for your follow up. I went on my Disqus under Mhmjjj2012 and both “pending” comments show up where I posted them, under “Charting common ground” marked “pending.” Perhaps there’s a glitch with Disqus? Anyhow, I didn’t realize I had 816 posts on CommonWealth articles and commentaries. I certainly appreciate the fact CommonWealth ran all but two of my comments. September 2017 was when I started taking my then seven month old grandchild for extended periods to playgrounds and the libraries in her town just outside of Boston to give her parents some time to themselves. It didn’t take me long to notice the young ones most likely to have difficulty in school. I think it’s a crime for state legislators to ignore their obligations to public education especially while granting themselves undeserved increased compensation. CommonWealth has really great reporting on energy and transportation…awesome coverage…giving readers the context to be fully informed on those issues… but when it comes to public education CommonWealth focuses on charter schools and inconsequential matters while ignoring not only the history of the state’s failure to properly fund public education but also the fact that the failure to properly fund public education continues. I would love for CommonWealth to consistently cover public education like it does energy and transportation. I’ll be a happy camper when that happens.

          • Jack Sullivan

            I can’t address your coverage complaints because I think we’ve been very even-handed over the years. As for your comments, I’m not sure why they’re labeled pending. They don’t show up in our content management as pending and I can see them both as an administrator and as a blind visitor. So they are up and visible to everyone. Feel free to email anytime you see that and think they might not be posted and we’ll make sure.

          • Mhmjjj2012

            CommonWealth’s public education coverage may have been “even-handed” over the years but that has not been the case over the past 18 months. Your commentary in today’s CommonWealth, “Targeting charters,” is a perfect example of my concerns. Regarding my “pending” comments, I just took a look at my comments under “U turn on internet privacy” and those are not the two comments held back as “pending” by Disqus under “Charting common ground.” Not sure what’s going on with that. Good to know I can contact you if there are issues with future comments but it’s more important to me for CommonWealth to dive deep into public education and its funding to really inform readers.

  • jeanabeana

    “divisiveness inherent in conceptions of charters and regular public schools as wholly distinct entities competing for scarce resource.” the state l legislature needs to address the Foundation Budget. The DESE places fierce competition among and between the schools even within a district; just as there is inequity between/among districts in the state. With the state constant push on testing there will always be 1/2 of our students below “average” and the students who fall below 20% on the phony tests are targeted to be punished by taking away resources. Test and punish is not a policy of the MTA — the MTA and other teachers know the students suffer from the DESE policy (and the tests are very expensive thus drawing off more resources so that the curriculum has narrowed).

  • jeanabeana

    this is quoting geyser about 10 years ago “The downside of this approach (DESE’s NCLB implementation) is that it’s expensive. Each MCAS test costs the state about $1.4M per year to develop, administer and score. This figure does not include the school and district staff time needed to manage the actual testing process. In addition, our approach to testing (especially the use of open-response questions) adds time to the scoring and reporting process. Full results from tests administered in the late Spring are not available to schools until late Summer or early Fall.”

    The other states pulled out so the budget Pearson works with has to come from taxpayers (Arne Duncan’s money is all used up). The state wants to continue developing these tests — a policy that has crowded civics education, art, music, electives, sciences, out of the curriculum because the total focus is “test and punish” by making the kid take a test on the computer in reading and math, find the 20% of the kids who are scoring lowest and close their schools. I say it is because they want those communities and schools destroyed but the powers blame the teachers’ union. MA has to sell the stupid tests to the Rhode Island parents to “make a deal” for Pearson. M. Chester went all over the country selling tests for Pearson profits and telling state educational commissioners to sign up with Jeb Bush (he likes the FL model ).

    • jeanabeana

      I tried to Fix. Geyser /Peyser but maybe I should just leave it as is… M. Chester has been a marketing agent for Pearson; this has done a great disservice to students. I have not been in touch with antonucci (former commissioner) about my comments and there are specific reasons why (ask people about the guy who siphoned off millions in Billerica/Chelmsford when Antonucci was in his previous role)

  • jeanabeana

    DESE “test and punish” finds the 20% of the students who score lowest and singles them out — their community and their schools. We already know where the poverty resides and we don’t need a “test” to tell us. In addition to a horrid policy, DESE has very poor design of a change model. This quote is from Paul Reville (former commissioner) ”

    Paul Reville, indicated “if the legislature had wanted to create charters as centers of innovation, it would not have funded them by taking funds from the very traditional public schools they were meant to inspire.”

    When the state builds their budget they punish the “gateway cities” again…. Chapter 46 reimbursements, while legally mandated, are not automatic and the legislature must approve a special appropriation for this purpose. The failure to approve the full appropriation in two or more years recently has been noted — the school districts/municipalities simply operated without those funds. Such shortfalls increase pressure on local budgets.(Note: In 2015, district schools only received 69% of promised reimbursements.it creates more stress on the urban areas like Haverhill). Unfortunately, the politicians in Boston are intent on these policies that harm cities like Leominster/Fitchburg, Brockton, Haverhill, Lowell etc. They pass around “white papers” at Pioneer that say the “gateway cities” have lost their function of housing immigrants and manufacturing. So , go ahead and blame the teacher union as Jim Braude does when he invites his “guests” on — that is what politics does.