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A calculated risk taken, rewarded

After enduring growing pains, charter school set to graduate its first class

By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / May 1, 2011

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There were times when Joan Lattke had second thoughts about deciding to enroll her son at the Advanced Math and Science Academy in Marlborough.

After the charter school first opened, high teacher turnover took a toll on both the curriculum and school morale, she said.

“It was definitely a risk,’’ said Lattke. “And if they hadn’t made the changes they made, I would have left.’’

Nearly six years later, as her son prepares to move on as a member of the first graduating class, she says the charter school has exceeded her expectations.

“I really couldn’t be happier,’’ said Lattke, who lives in Shrewsbury. “It’s just unbelievable the growth that I’ve seen in him.’’

The Advanced Math and Science Academy was founded by a group of parents and educators, initially led by several Russian immigrants, who dreamed of a regional school that would live up to what they perceived as higher international standards.

But the path was not easy. In addition to high teacher turnover, there were lawsuits and parent complaints. After Barbara McGann, a retired US Navy rear admiral, became executive director in 2008, the school began to stabilize.

Today, the school has a wide reputation for its rigorous curriculum and high MCAS scores, and has a waiting list of 575 students for the upcoming school year.

“The older kids have endured a lot of change and growing pains to make it where it is today,’’ said Marlborough resident Susi Price, whose daughter was in the first sixth-grade class and is a junior this spring. “They don’t have the frills, they don’t have all the amenities like the other public schools . . . but they make it work, and their number-one thing is education and learning, and you can’t beat that.’’

The school opened in September 2005 with an enrollment of 239 sixth- and seventh-graders. It expanded by a grade each year, and is now at capacity, with 966 students in grades 6 through 12. They come from 70 communities, from Tyngsborough to Attleboro.

The school is open to everyone, but preference is given to siblings of current students and residents of its four “core’’ communities: Marlborough, Clinton, Hudson, and Maynard. Other applicants participate in a lottery for any remaining seats.

For this fall, all of the openings have been filled by siblings. Price’s younger daughter is in eighth grade; Lattke’s younger son is in ninth.

The school is gaining recognition around the region amid a growing movement among parents and educators to improve how science, technology, engineering, and math — commonly referred to as STEM subjects — are taught in the United States.

“It really is crucial to the economic advancement of any country,’’ said Joshua Cohen, cochairman of the Newton STEM Coalition, which was created earlier this year. “It is central to the development of technologies and products that are critical.’’

The Advanced Math and Science Academy’s long waiting list “is an indication that it’s something that’s felt by a lot of people,’’ Cohen said.

Because of its innovative computer science program, the charter school has been invited by the College Board to help revamp the curriculum for its Advanced Placement computer science course, said McGann.

Computer science is required at all grade levels. In eighth grade, students study the HTML and JavaScript computer languages, and build and program robots. In 10th grade, they build websites, set up a database, and are introduced to engineering. By 11th grade, they are working on advanced computer-aided design.

The school also touts its integrated middle school curriculum, which has students delve into subjects chronologically, so they study the same time period in their English language, history, science and other subjects.

Henry Haugland, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, said about half of all students take calculus in the 10th grade, and the school does its own assessments in English and math twice a year to see how students are doing overall.

Their efforts seem borne out by test results. The school’s 2009 MCAS scores put it near the top compared with other public schools statewide, based on a Globe ranking that combined students who scored either advanced or proficient on the tests. Ninety-seven percent of the school’s students tested advanced or proficient in English, 97 percent in math, and 89 percent in science and technology.

Although Haugland thinks the school is already great, he expects more.

“I think we probably can become a world-class school,’’ said Haugland. “I think we can become the best in the world at what we do — I mean that.’’

These accomplishments are by a school that very nearly didn’t open. After the state approved its charter in 2004, school boards in three area communities sued to have the decision overturned. In August 2005, a Middlesex Superior Court judge sided with the charter school, allowing it to open a month later, one year behind schedule.

The case ultimately headed to the Supreme Judicial Court, which upheld the charter in March 2007.

More challenges followed the school’s opening. Parents complained that the school’s bus transportation was too costly and the routes too convoluted, and about the high teacher turnover.

In 2007, the school sued a former teacher, saying he violated a confidentiality agreement by e-mailing parents and students. It also accused him of “disparaging’’ the school to students and parents. The teacher countersued the school, alleging that he was encouraged to squeeze out special-needs students. The case was settled out of court.

Teachers and parents are reporting smoother days. In January, 92 percent of parents said in a survey that they were very satisfied, satisfied, or somewhat satisfied with the school. Teacher job satisfaction was just as high, according to the survey. The school is not unionized.

Staff turnover appears to be a thing of the past. According to McGann, every teacher who was offered a contract last year came back; only two were not offered new contracts.

Transportation issues have largely been resolved, said parents said. Lattke said her sons carpool from Shrewsbury, and the school has helped parents connect so they can better organize transportation.

Roger Jarrett, the parent representative to the school’s board of trustees, said the mood has gone from challenging to more forward looking.

“I think the parents are very happy,’’ said Jarrett, who has one son in ninth grade and another starting sixth grade next year. “As a parent representative, I’ve received very little negative feedback. . . . We as a board are focusing on how best to move the school forward, given where we’re at.’’

The next challenge is to replace McGann, who is retiring June 30.

Lattke said she’s not worried.

“What Barbara brought was a no-nonsense approach to getting the job done. There was no drama,’’ said Lattke. “I know she has really set up a solid structure for the school to succeed. The school is very cohesive, it has its own culture, it’s vibrant, it’s healthy, students are excited. They really celebrate education every day.’’

One of the things that parents and administrators say they are most proud of is harder to quantify than their science achievements. They point to the friendships and close-knit community that have developed at the school, as well as its motivated student body.

“The biggest thing when I walked through the school is just the excitement the kids have about wanting to learn,’’ said Jarrett. “There’s such a positive vibe running through the school. Kids like going to school there.’’

For many parents, the proof of success is in acceptance letters from colleges. The list for the first graduating class of 62 students includes Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis University, Brigham Young University, Brown University, Carnegie Mellon University, Clark University, Cornell University, Emerson College, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University, McGill University, New York University, Northeastern University, Texas A&M University, United States Naval Academy, University of Chicago, and University of Pennsylvania.

Lattke said she’s happy with where her son is going, Norwich University.

“I have to credit that with so many positive role models at AMSA,’’ she said. “He’s so prepared for college.’’

Lisa Kocian can be reached at lkocian@globe.com.

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided by a school spokeswoman, this May 1 article about the Advanced Math and Science Academy in Marlborough mischaracterized the new students entering this fall. All of the charter school’s openings have been filled by siblings of current students and applicants from its four core communities.