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Charter school founder tries to ease concerns of Gavin conversion

Posted by Cara Bayles  October 15, 2010 12:41 PM

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(Cara Bayles for boston.com)

Scott Given, founder of the UP Academy, which would replace the Gavin Middle School, at presentation to parents, teachers, and students.

If the Gavin Middle School shuts down next year, as the school district proposes, current students would still be able to walk the building's halls: They'd have first dibs on attending the UP Academy, a charter school that would replace the Gavin.

At an information session for parents, teachers, and students Thursday night, Scott Given, the founder of the UP Academy, tried to ease any concerns about the change to a charter school. The UP admissions process will involve a lottery, he said, but that any student currently enrolled is guaranteed a spot at the UP.

UP Academy would be the first in-district charter school of its type in Massachusetts, the Boston School Department says.

The change at the Gavin, located at 215 Dorchester St., is part of Superintendent Carol Johnson's restructuring plan to close six schools and open in-district charters -- the UP Academy, and the Boston Green Academy, serving grades 6-12. A new law, passed in January allows any underperforming school to be converted into an in-district charter.

The school system will still control its in-district charter schools, which will sign a performance contract, promising to reach achievement goals or face closure. But the schools operate on their own unique curriculum standards.

At the Up Academy, students will have Science, Math and English classes twice a day, in two 50-minute chunks, rather than all at once in a one hour and forty minute block.

They'll have study hall and homework club until 4:30 p.m. And, to the chagrin of some students who attended Thursday night's meeting, they'll have to wear uniforms.

Given is former principal of the Excel Academy Charter School in East Boston. During his tenure there, the Excel became the highest-performing middle school in Massachusetts.

"We had conversations with Mayor Menino, we had conversations with Carol Johnson, and presented the program we wanted to build, and they thought it was a good match for the city," Given said after the information session. "We're going to do the very best we can for every kid in the school."

Aspects of the plan still need to be ironed out. It's still unclear how the Up will address the needs of the Gavin's special education students. During the meeting, Givens said he was still "in the learning stage" regarding programs for students with disabilities.

Yet, overall, the proposal does not seem to be as controversial as other aspects of Johnson's plan, which must be approved by the School Committee next month.

Parents of students at the Clap School in Dorchester have mounted a campaign to keep the school open, complete with a Facebook page. Parents at Dorchester's Lee Academy Pilot School, which is supposed to merge with the Lee Elementary School, have printed stickers expressing their discontent.

John Earle, a South Boston resident whose son had one year left at the Gavin, asked several questions during Thursday night's information session. But after the meeting, he seemed optimistic about sending his son to the UP for eighth grade.

"Not every parent is able to spend time with their kids and go over their homework," said Earle, whose work day ends around 11:30 p.m. "If they have the teachers after school to help, that's comforting to know. … We work very long, hard hours. I'm relying on the schools to teach my child. That's what I'm paying taxes for."

Earle added that he was against busing, and didn't want to see his son commuting out of the neighborhood every day for school.

"If all the schools are up to par, there's no need for busing," he said. "Kids are more comfortable in their own environment, their own area."

Families who decide not to send their children to the UP will also have options, administrators say. There's the Oliver Hazard Perry in South Boston, as well as the John McCormack and the Richard Murphy in Dorchester.

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