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.
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.
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.”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.