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At last, Parker charter school has a home of its own

Loan, fund-raising support purchases

The Parker charter school bought this modular classroom building from Holden's Wachusett Regional High School. The Parker charter school bought this modular classroom building from Holden's Wachusett Regional High School. (Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / April 24, 2008

After spending the last 11 years holding classes in hallways, a parking lot, or from a cart, one of the first charter public schools in the state finally has a home big enough for its 375 students.

With some creative financing, aggressive fund-raising, and strong community support, the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School was able to purchase land, a former elementary school, and a 13-classroom modular building at Devens. Students and faculty moved into the new space this month.

"It enables us to focus time and talents on issues more centrally related to education," said Anne Perkins, chairwoman of the school's board of trustees. "It lets us take our focus away from basic survival of where we're going to be, and on where a school's attention should be."

Parker serves students in seventh through 12th grades from 40 area communities, with many of them residing in Acton, Ayer, Concord, Devens, Groton, Harvard, Littleton, and Shirley. The school had been leasing space at Devens since opening in 1995.

It is one of 61 charter public schools in Massachusetts, open to all students for free, that operate independently of local school districts.

Finding space and paying for it is a common problem for charter schools, said Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.

Charter schools have fewer financing options for new buildings than typical public schools, Kenen said, which makes it nearly impossible to start from scratch. They are not eligible for school building assistance through the state and are not allowed to seek funding from property taxes via a Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion, he said.

The per-pupil tuition payment that goes to charter schools from a student's home district includes some funding for facilities, Kenen said, but it's not enough. That money is typically used to pay rent or debt, he said.

"Facilities are the biggest challenges for charter schools in Massachusetts and around the country," Kenen said.

Kenen said most schools start out renting space, as Parker did, and buy a building once they have become more established. In addition to coming up with financing, Kenen said, it is difficult to find space that is appropriate for a school.

He said schools have started in a church, strip mall, old farmhouse, car dealership, and a flea market.

The Parker school started out in a windowless building at the former Fort Devens Army base. Eight years ago, it moved to the former elementary school on the base, even though officials knew it was too small.

Three years ago, Perkins said, the board of trustees decided it was important for the school to have a permanent home. Classrooms were triple-booked then, leaving teachers with little, if any, space of their own. With cramped quarters, some teachers were forced to take students into the hallways or even out to the parking lot for class, she said.

School officials looked into the possibility of building a new school, but quickly found it was too costly, Perkins said. Then someone heard that Wachusett Regional High School in Holden was selling a modular classroom building it had used for five years.

The trustees decided to put in a bid for the classrooms and approach the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, or MassDevelopment, the quasi state agency that owns and oversees the former Army base, about purchasing the 9-acre site and elementary school.

The school then came up with a game plan for financing the project.

"The wonderful thing about it is it gives our community a way to know this school is going to be here for future generations," Perkins said.

The major funding source for the classroom purchase was $2.6 million in tax-exempt bonds, which was floated by MassDevelopment. Parker was able to obtain a loan with an interest rate low enough so the monthly payments do not cut into dollars that were going to teacher salaries, Perkins said.

The school also launched a fund-raising campaign, to which more than 70 percent of the faculty and staff contributed. Deborah Chamberlain, a health and fitness teacher who has been at the school for 11 years, said the investment was well worth it.

"This is the first time I've had my very own desk," said Chamberlain, who led the fund-raising effort among faculty. "It was always share, share, share."

Chamberlain said she was known as one of the "cart teachers" who would go from room to room with her supplies. Now the carts are empty, she said.

Students raised more than $7,000 through events such as bake sales, can and bottle collections, and ticket raffles. Some donated baby-sitting money and allowances. Daphne Shethar, a senior who spearheaded the student campaign, said it was awkward asking fellow students for money, but most were willing to get involved.

"The school has helped a lot of people so everyone in the school is really thankful to be in the school, but the space undermined all that," Shethar said.

Parents, alumni parents, and alumni contributed. In all, the school raised $930,000.

Parker also received contributions of used furniture from the Polaroid Co. and a neighboring school district to help reduce expenses. The school's oldest students and parent volunteers provided the labor to move into the addition.

"It was wonderful to see them taking pride in their building," Perkins said. "We set out to build a building, but quickly saw we were building a community."

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.

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