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SALEM

City plans charter school

Move counters private effort

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / June 13, 2010

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Salem is preparing to seek state approval to open its own charter school even as organizers of the Road to Success Charter High School ready a revised plan for a charter school serving Lynn and Salem.

The proposed district-run, or Horace Mann, charter high school in Salem is designed for students at risk of dropping out due to poor grades, poor test scores, or disciplinary problems. Many of the 50 to 100 students served would be teens facing personal issues such as poverty or substance use.

“We are in the planning stages now,’’ said School Superintendent William J. Cameron, who was recently authorized by the School Committee to develop an application to the state for the charter school. “I’ve had several meetings with different constituencies and I have more planned, and we are gaining substantial local support for the project.’’

In contrast to the more common type of charter school in the state — Commonwealth schools — Horace Mann schools must involve the local school committee and teachers’ union in developing the charter plan, and are funded directly by the school committee.

Road to Success organizers last year proposed a 400-student charter school for Lynn, Peabody, and Salem. As with the proposed Horace Mann school, it was designed for children struggling academically, targeting in particular those facing difficulties because English is not their first language or because they are from foster homes. Innovations such as extended learning time were pro posed to help those students succeed.

The proposal drew opposition from the three school districts, which said it was flawed and that the school was unneeded and would drain money from their budgets. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in February turned down the Road to Success proposal after having selected it as a finalist — only one out of 14 original charter proposals was approved. But the group said recently it intends to reapply for a charter with a modified plan calling for a 320-student school serving Lynn and Salem alone.

Robert Guinto, leader of the Road to Success founders, said the group dropped Peabody from its proposed region because of recent steps the city has taken to improve student performance, including partnering on a plan to open an alternative school at the Northshore Mall.

Guinto said his group was motivated to try again for a charter because it believes no other school in the state is focusing on serving the population it is targeting. He said Lynn and Salem have the largest number of students from that population in this area.

Both Road to Success and Salem plan to submit their charter proposals to the state for the 2010-2011 application round. Organizers of the Lynn Preparatory Charter School, another finalist that failed to win state approval in February, are also planning to reapply in the next round, according to the group’s spokesman, Mark Hathaway.

Cameron said Salem was prompted to pursue the plan for a Horace Mann school after Road to Success filed its initial application last year.

The Road to Success proposal “did indeed spur us to look at the population that is not graduating from high school and that we are not succeeding in educating,’’ he said. “I believe the strength of using the Horace Mann charter format to address the needs of that population is that the district is in a much superior place compared to an outside group in using community resources to the fullest extent in support of these students.’’

Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll, who chairs the School Committee, said that with a Horace Mann school, the city could “service a population of kids that are currently struggling [and] control our destiny.’’ She said the district’s existing connections with local human service groups make it better positioned than a non-district-run charter school to serve those students.

But Guinto said Salem’s plan for a Horace Mann school is still not addressing adequately the students that are failing, noting that Salem and Lynn are among the 30 lowest performing school districts in the state.

In addition to favoring its own plan, Driscoll said Salem would “be very concerned if a new proposal was going forward [from Road to Success], especially given that it seems focused on two communities, which would have a larger impact on our city and our school budget.’’ She also cited concerns the city raised about the proposal last time, including that it lacked any local partners.

But Guinto said that in its revised proposal his group addressed that latter concern by including more residents of Lynn and Salem on its board.

And he said the proposal is much stronger overall, notably because the founding group has brought on an expert partner — the North American Family Institute. The human service agency would train Road to Success teachers to work with children facing significant life pressures, and help the school connect those students with community services, Guinto said.

Lynn School Superintendent Catherine Latham said she is not openly opposing the renewed Road to Success bid. But, she said of the proposed school, “I don’t know that it would draw any Lynn students, considering our extensive programming and different schooling options for students at risk of not graduating.’’

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