Justin A. Rice for Boston.comWalking past a haunted house and physic parlor in the Museum Place Mall at 10 a.m. last Thursday morning, Tasheska Fernandez and Jade Torres approached Andrew Bell, who was holding a clipboard and wristbands outside a storefront with dance music spilling out of it.
“I have no clue, I don’t know what the wristbands are about,” Torres said while Fernandez’s tied a red ribbon around her wrist.
“Soon you’ll find out,” Bell said just before a sign reading Salem Community Charter School was hung over the glass doors blacked out by garbage bags.
The ninth- to 12th-grade high school is designed to serve students ages 16 to 23 who have dropped out of school or are at risk of doing so and is one of 16 new charter schools approved in February by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
The school’s staff of 20 and 30-somethings knew they had to hook the kids from the moment they walked in the door last Thursday for the first day of school.
“Today is like a club theme, this is our wow moment,” Bell, the school's math teacher, said after Fernandez and Torres entered the room illuminated by a disco ball. “So far so good. We’re missing eight out of 50 [students] and we’ve already had a couple [unregistered] kids come trying to get in. We had to turn them away. We’re at capacity.”
One of the school's staffers came up with the idea to make the students feel like they were entering an exclusive nightclub on the first day of school.
“What we want these students to understand is that they have an opportunity and that opportunity is special and unusual,” Principal Jessica Yurwitz said. “Rather than stigmatizing this environment, we tried to make it really special.”
The school operates without grade levels and students advance toward degrees based on assessments of their academic, social and emotional competency. The school is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. but formal classes are scheduled between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. so the students can participate in a work-study program.
“I’m not really an early morning person,” said Fernandez, who dropped out of the Lynn Classical School after her mother had surgery. “I really don’t do that well with a lot of kids in a classroom. This is like a second chance, why not take it. I wasn’t doing anything with my life so might as well do something.”
The brainchild of Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and former Superintendent William Cameron, the school had already secured a charter when it hired Yurwitz in March but not much else. The first-time principal picked the 3,000 square foot downtown storefront and hired a small staff, includes three core curriculum teachers, a special education teacher, two counselors and an employment specialist.
In addition to all the academic and administrative requirements that go along with starting a new school, Yurwitz also had to outfit the school with furniture and a refrigerator.
“Two months ago it was just me sitting on the floor,” she said. “It’s been the busiest, longest seven and a half months of my entire life.”
The school’s biggest challenge, however, will be to continually engaging and support students that Yurwitz said have “fallen off the industrialized education conveyor belt.”
“Teaching is such a tricky thing with how to balance excitement, which can seem chaotic, with academic rigor, which seems staid and boring.” Yurwitz said. “In truth they are not those things, those are assumptions we make because of what traditional schools look like.
“But it doesn’t have to look that way. Really, rigorous academics can be exciting and enthralling.”
The nightclub-themed opening day sure got the students’ attention and so did Yurwitz's outfit, featuring a black fur vest, dark jeans and bracelets made of glow sticks. After climbing on the desk for a few welcoming remarks, the 44-year-old Essex resident gathered the students in the cafeteria and replaced her fuzzy vest with a beige blazer she called her “principal clothes.”
“You have all done something really amazing,” she told them. “You have taken a step into your future that is new and different from the steps you’ve taken in your past. Taking a brave new step is hard. We are going to support you until you graduate from high school.
“This is for some of you a second chance and for some of you a third chance and maybe even a fourth chance. But for all of you it’s a new chance.”
Justin A. Rice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.