Charter schools, new curricula

Anyone who has opened an editorial page of a local paper this fall is likely to know something of the controversy surrounding the proposed Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter School (BArT). As two members of the founding group that has developed the application for this school, we welcome the chance to share our thoughts with readers of the Record.

For those of you who may have missed the reporting, a charter school is an independent public school that gets its charter to operate directly from the state Department of Education, rather than from the local school district.

A charter school is given the freedom and flexibility to manage its own budget, design an educational system to meet the needs of its students, organize its own school day and year and hire the teachers it needs to meet its goals. BArT is one of eleven schools proposed in the current application cycle. If its application is approved, it would join 46 existing charter schools that currently serve about 16,000 students in Massachusetts.

By the end of February, the Massachusetts Department of Education will decide whether or not to grant our charter. If the charter is granted, the school’s board will proceed to develop a public school that will serve approximately three hundred students from nearby towns. The school program will begin with the sixth and ninth grades, and grow with those initial classes until it becomes a complete middle and high school. The school is designed to reach out to those students who are not succeeding in the existing school systems.

Having talked with hundreds of local parents, community leaders and educators, we are convinced of the need for a school such as this. While the nearby schools have many strengths, they cannot meet all the diverse needs of local children. Since each district has only one middle school and one high school, those students who do not fit in are quickly lost.

Our hope in founding BArT is to find these students and help them achieve at a level that will give them favorable options in life.

Research shows that building a strong school community around a longer school day and school year will significantly increase the achievement of many students. The school’s curriculum, which features block scheduling, team teaching and pervasive use of arts and technology, will give students the tools necessary for clear communication and critical thinking. Equipped with these tools, they will be prepared to enter college or the work force.

Those who oppose the charter school have leveled a number of arguments against it. Chief among these arguments is the financial one. Massachusetts law facilitates charter school funding by calculating the per pupil cost of educating a student in a particular district and sending that amount to the charter school that educates the child rather than the district school he or she would have attended.

Clearly, this is a source of controversy and we are sensitive to the budgetary issues which all communities now face. We see the need to serve a broader range of students, however, and believe adding a charter school will allow the overall public education system to meet the needs of more students. Moreover, state aid to our community will increase for every child the charter school prevents from dropping out or attracts back into public education from private or home schools.

Some opponents have stated that we hope to establish a private academy to benefit the children of Williams faculty and staff. Nothing could be further from the truth. If demand for the school exceeds the capacity of forty students per grade, prospective students will be admitted via a lottery system. We have begun outreach programs to educate parents about the school and its program. There is significant enthusiasm from all quarters, and we are committed to populating the school with those students who are not well served by the current programs, students whose diversity reflects the population of Berkshire County. Â

Some opponents charge that our school will duplicate programs offered by existing schools. While it is true that the current schools offer art and technology classes, BArT’s is an integrated curriculum, one where arts and technology are found in each classroom, and where the learning of core topics is informed and enlivened by the use of creative expression and digital technology. This approach will focus on the individual student’s ability to think creatively and express these thoughts clearly.Â

Some critics remind us that the current schools serve many students well, and that the majority of the students will be harmed by the diversion of funds.

To them, we say that local schools fare very poorly in state rankings, despite large increases in state aid over recent years. We know that the charter school will not appeal to all students. For those who are attracted, though, we can promise an invigorating education that will open doors to the future – doors which are now closed.

Ultimately, this is a local issue. The need is local, the impetus to found this school is local and the school will stand or fall on the strength of the support from local parents and their children. We are delighted to be involved in this grassroots attempt at educational reform.