GLOUCESTER -- Staff, parents, and 85 children today defied state opposition and began the new school year at the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School, which the state contends does not meet standards for charter schools.
Tony Blackman, the school's executive director, today held a framed copy of the charter the state had previously issued as he greeted parents and students. Blackman urged students not to be "disheartened'' by the controversy, which could lead to the shutdown of the school halfway through the academic year.
He insisted his school for students in grades four through seven is prepared to provide an appropriate education even though classes will first be held in temporary classrooms until renovations are complete on a permanent home.
"This has never been about whether this is viable educationally,'' said Blackman, who has five academic teachers and three arts teachers on his staff. "It's whether it has been viable politically.''
Jeff Wulfson, an associate commissioner for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, was on hand this morning, but did not interfere with the opening. He declined to comment.
In a letter sent to Blackman this week, Mitchell D. Chester, commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, wrote that multiple issues may compel him to convene a meeting of the board to discuss the possible revocation of the school’s charter.
Chester's letter can be found here.
The school's response to Chester can be found here.
The school has been ensnared in a political debate since the disclosure of an e-mail that state Education Secretary Paul Reville sent to Chester in February 2009, urging support for one of three pending charter school applications to build political support for Governor Deval Patrick's education agenda among charter school advocates.
About a week later, Chester publicly backed the Gloucester proposal, even though his own in-house experts believed the charter school would fail. The state board of education later endorsed the Gloucester charter school.
Despite the controversy, Lourie Killian today brought her 9-year-old daughter, Emma, and her 10-year-old son, David, who are to enter the fourth and fifth grades.
"They are trying to do a good thing, here and we fully support them,'' she said. "We are not loving the controversy, but we have high hopes.''
Another parent, Kristie Jones, said the quality of the Gloucester public schools requires her to gamble on the charter school finding a way to keep its doors open. Jones's 10-year-old daughter, Michaela, started fifth grade today.
"The school where she went is a failing school,'' Jones said. "She needed to be more challenged instead of falling behind. I'm hoping the education she will get here will do that.''
Michaela Jones, like her 84 classmates, is starting the academic year three weeks later than other Gloucester students. Her priority, she said, was getting back in the classroom.
"I am just happy to go back to school, instead of sitting at home all day,'' she said. "I want to learn.''
Among the issues cited by the state is the recent finding by Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office that the school violated state laws in the building of its facilities and in the competitive bidding for those services.
Coakley's letter to the school can be found here.
Property owner Mick Lafata said today he has spent $3.7 million renovating an old medical building into a state-of-the-art, 23,000-square-foot school. He, too, is pushing forward despite the state threat.
"I took a chance, but I've been very impressed by everyone, and we've had no choice but to go forward with this,'' he said.
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