School charts new path in spite of challenges

Founders of the Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter School (BArT) are confident that recent challenges to the decision that formally authorized its development will not hinder progress toward its opening in Fall 2004. Initiatives in the state legislature and a local lawsuit are on the table to prevent the school and four others from opening as scheduled.

State Representatives have introduced legislation calling for a three-year moratorium on all new charter schools while their effects – financial and other – on local school districts can be evaluated more closely.

Similar bills have been introduced in the past, but have never been brought out of committee. Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts, has publicly supported the schools and it has been suggested that he will veto any legislation against them.

Meanwhile, local officials in Berkshire County have discussed the possibility of suing for a court injunction against the school, charging that the selection process was illegitimate.

Critics originally claimed in a Feb. 27 editorial in the Berkshire Eagle that one of the school’s founders and most vocal spokesmen, Simeon Stolzberg ’92, inappropriately used connections in the state Board of Education to win approval for the charter.

The paper printed a correction the following day saying that it had misrepresented Stolzberg’s affiliation with board members.

Opponents have claimed other irregularities in the approval process, such as lack of a public hearing, but founders say that the application process was rigorous, appropriate and identical to others in the past.

Twenty-five groups submitted charter proposals in September and 11 of these were asked to submit formal applications in November. Five of these applications were approved.

Stolzberg was quoted in the Eagle on Feb. 26 dismissing claims levied against the school, but unsurprised at the opposition. “No municipal government ever supports a local charter school, so this is not unusual,” he wrote.

“We had letters of support from CEOs of local companies, educators, parents, retired principals. It’s a very high standard for demonstrating community support.”

The chief complaint from local officials seems to be the financial strain. Charter schools receive state funds on the order of $7,500 for every student enrolled. This money is taken from local district budgets, hence the concern.

But proponents point to other state monies that remain with the local schools no matter how many students leave and initiatives that supply replacement funds to eliminate the initial strain.

According to Charles Stevenson, health professions advisor and coordinator of the Math-Science Resource Center and a founding member of the BArT board, in general, charter schools are designed to “produce model schools that develop interesting curricula,” which can then be evaluated and possibly implemented into the larger scope of public education. Stevenson emphasized that the group is “coming into this with a fully cooperative sense.

We’re looking to develop early partnerships with other schools,” he said. Operated with state public education funds but controlled by administrations outside of the district umbrella, the schools are free of charge to area students.

Administrators are also able to design their own unique curricula or teaching strategies to fill important educational niches or explore new ideas.

BArT is chiefly founded on a mission to fully integrate the use of technology and an appreciation of the arts into the academic experience of every student.

Organizers hope to attract students who are not fitting in with the current regional options.

With only one middle school and one high school, local children who do not respond well to the traditional system are left with no alternative.

Specific outreach recruitment programs are targeting “at-risk” students, who may be bored or depressed in the current educational environment.

As a result of the new philosophy, the hope is that “students who might otherwise fall through the cracks will be far better prepared for participating in the modern world,” said founding board member Charlie Toomajian, associate dean for student services and registar.

One of the key features of the school is its small size. Beginning in September 2004 with classes of about 40 sixth- and 40 ninth-graders, the school will eventually develop into a full middle school and high school with about 300 students total. Teachers will work on a team-teaching model with individual class sizes capped at about 20.

“People talk a lot about class size as being important in education,” Toomajian said. “But recent research shows that school size is equally important. Smaller is better,” added Toomajian.

Along with other plans designed to foster a pervasive use of technology, the school will provide each student with a laptop for use in class and on assignments.

Critics have charged that this part of the school’s mission is redundant, pointing to large capital investments into the existing public schools to provide better access to technology. Still, founders say, these schools use the “lab concept.”

“It’s a different model from this charter school – technology isn’t something you do from 9 to 9:47,” Toomajian said.

Students will study the arts as both an independent subject and in relation to other humanities and social sciences.“

A historical unit about civil war, for example, might feature a discussion of Picasso’s Guernica,” Stevenson said.These curricular goals will be accomplished with the aid of a slightly longer school day, running from 8-4:30.

Classes will be taught in block format, with meal breaks and community time interspersed between three two-hour class blocks focusing on mathematics, science and and humanities and electives.

More specific curricular goals and recruitment efforts will be implemented over the next few months, as organizers are still in a very initial strategic planning phase.

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