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Should they stay or should they go?

Despite their love of Somerville, parents divided on schools

By Danielle Dreilinger
Globe Correspondent / May 5, 2011

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The Somerville educational system has 10 public schools, one charter school, one parochial school, and one big problem: a reputation that’s iffy at best.

Over the last 15 years, the city has become a hot place for young people to live. But as the post-grads become 30-somethings and start families, will the city be able to keep them?

Enrollment in the public schools decreased by 281 students from 2005-06 to this year’s 4,855, according to state Department of Education statistics, though Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone said registration is up for next year.

Meanwhile, the city’s only charter school, Prospect Hill Academy, has increased its enrollment to more than 1,100 students since it began with 450 as the Somerville Charter School in 1996, according to Anja Bresler, director of external relations.

In the 2010 MCAS results for 10th-graders, the benchmark age group projecting graduation, Somerville was ranked 258th out of 284 public school districts statewide. Somerville fared better than several nearby urban districts, including Lynn, Everett, and Chelsea, but for some parents, that’s not enough.

In a four-year graduation rate study released last year, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported Somerville had an 18.6 percent drop-out rate, compared with 8.2 percent statewide.

With the city’s celebration of diversity come some hard facts about the Somerville school system. For the current school year, the first language is not English for 52 percent of students, while 68.3 percent are classified low-income, according to the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Education is a priority for Curtatone, a father of four sons who attend public school at the Michael E. Capuano Early Childhood Center and the John F. Kennedy Elementary School. “Absolutely,’’ he said. “This is the most important pillar in our plan’’ for economic development.

As for the MCAS scores, “You need to compare apples to apples,’’ he said, noting that Somerville was “consistently rated one of the top urban [districts] in the Commonwealth.’’

People who are satisfied with the Somerville schools say perceptions haven’t caught up to reality.

The district has an active outreach campaign, including open houses; the website somerville.k12.ma.us/choose that describes the focus of each of the city’s public schools, helping parents decide which is right for their child; the Next Wave (grades 6-9) and Full Circle (grades 9-12) alternative schools; and data analysis to see what works. In March, the district held a series of meetings so parents could suggest improvements.

But better schools take longer than bike lanes and outdoor café seating, and change might not come fast enough.

Stay? Go? “I think a lot of parents in Somerville are struggling’’ with the choice, said Daniel Dessin, whose two sons attend Somerville schools.

“There’s no certain, right answer for everyone,’’ said Alix van Geel, who along with her husband, Lars Kellogg-Stedman, decided to leave Somerville and have their two young children attend school in Belmont.

Van Geel never thought she’d leave Somerville. She loved the connectivity, the community, not owning a car. But when she and Kellogg-Stedman became parents, they started to worry about the schools.

Research ensued. “We were trying to get a sense of the quality of the school system,’’ van Geel said, “which is hard to define.’’ They attended elementary school open houses and looked at the state Department of Education website for diversity figures, an important factor for the mixed-race family, as well as test scores.

Undeniably, “the scores [in Somerville] were really, really low,’’ Kellogg-Stedman said.

From there, the issues piled up. The parents loved the Brown school, but the building was old, and with Somerville’s controlled choice program, Max, 5, and Kira, 3, might not get in. Teachers seemed less attuned to children who were academically advanced, the couple found.

Belmont, on the other hand, looked great right out of the box. The high school has “this astounding array of AP courses,’’ van Geel said. “It seemed to offer this richness of choice.’’ Academic achievement was high all around: In 2010, Belmont ranked 14th out of 284 on the Globe’s list of MCAS high-achieving districts.

That’s what van Geel and Kellogg-Stedman wanted: an environment with plenty of resources, where everyone was engaged in education. In 2009, they moved to Belmont.

It required sacrifice. Their housing costs went way up. Kellogg-Stedman has a quick bus ride to work, but they’re half a mile from a commercial strip and more than a mile from the nearest Zipcar and they still don’t own a car. They miss a lot about Somerville.

If not for the schools, “we would’ve stayed [in Somerville]. Absolutely. We were very happy where we were,’’ van Geel said.

Alex O’Brien Feldman also wanted to stay. “It’s hard for me to talk about the schools without thinking of how much I love the city,’’ he said. But for Feldman, who performs as “Alex the Jester,’’ the decision was serious indeed.

“I had questions, too. I wasn’t going to take [it] for granted,’’ he said. It’s not a “turn-key school system . . . churning out Ivy League grads.’’ Close friends, whose opinion he trusted, left.

Wife Ami was excited by the creativity of the Waldorf method, used in some charter and private schools, none in Somerville. But when she saw the Benjamin G. Brown School for kindergarten to sixth grade, with “plants in the corner and frogs and beanbag chairs,’’ Feldman said, they decided to give it a try.

Conventional academic achievement wasn’t the family’s primary concern. “I want them to develop as dynamic people who love learning, and I feel like there’s a place for that in Somerville because there’s so many different kinds of people,’’ Feldman said. “There’s more room for the quirky kids.’’

The results: Thumbs up. “When I got a little more involved, I was able to see which rumors had basis,’’ Feldman said, concluding that many stemmed from “test scores or aging perceptions.’’

His kids can walk to friends’ houses. His baby-sitter got into Harvard. Despite the city’s low MCAS rank, “I feel like there’s a lot of families who value learning,’’ Feldman said. “We’re happy as clams.’’

Not so for Daniel Dessin, who’s tried just about every option the city offers for his two sons. “It’s been hit-or-miss with the school system,’’ he said.

Malik, 10, started prekindergarten at the well-regarded Capuano Early Childhood Center. However, Dessin knew “from doing research, Somerville’s schools compared with other cities’ are not the greatest.’’ He graduated from Somerville High and couldn’t shake the bad impression.

So for first grade, he enrolled Malik in St. Catherine, the city’s only remaining parochial school. But the boy wasn’t crazy about the religious component, and “it also got kind of expensive because I’m a single dad,’’ Dessin said.

A Belmont private school was like a mini-university, and cost about as much. Dessin considered moving to Arlington or Belmont but “my support network is here,’’ particularly his parents.

Back to the public schools they went. Dessin chose the Argenziano K-8 because he liked the teachers he interviewed, Malik knew many of the students; the building was brand-new, and three blocks from his job.

The experience has been inconsistent, however. One teacher was great; another wasn’t. “He gets As and Bs,’’ Dessin said. “I would rather have him getting straight As.’’

In early April, Alijah, 5, got into Prospect Hill Academy. Malik is high on the waiting list. Should he move up, the family will have to make yet another decision. “It’s a risk because he might not do as well there,’’ Dessin said, and Malik doesn’t want to leave the Argenziano.

“I’ve stayed up a lot of nights thinking about it,’’ Dessin said. “One, I wish I could afford to send my kids to one of these elite [private schools].’’ He attended one of the parent outreach meetings in March. “The fact that they’re having these meetings tells a lot,’’ he said.

Still, Dessin won’t keep his kids in the Somerville public schools “if the school system doesn’t improve. Which I hope it does.’’

Danielle Dreilinger can be reached at somervillescene@gmail.com.