Massachusetts State Representative - 34th Middlesex District

New Somerville charter school debate echoes concerns in 1996

Somerville Journal

Somerville -- It was about 16 years ago, but the arguments are fundamentally the same: A charter school will be a free private education for the privileged; the group that plans to run it is inexperienced; and it will sap money from the public school district.

Opinions of Prospect Hill Academy have changed since then. The school doesn't work hand-in-glove with Somerville Public Schools, but the two entities collaborate, and the old charge that the charter would be a bastion for "white flight" has been disproved over the years.

Now, a similar debate is taking place in Somerville over whether the city should house another charter school - the proposed Somerville Progressive Charter School - which opponents say will be run by an inexperienced group, would decimate public school funding and cater to the privileged class.

"The proponents, when they put this forward, they were looking for the best school for their children," said state Rep. Carl Sciortino, D-Medford, at a December hearing about SPCS. "We don't need this charter school."

Ward 5 School Committee representative Mark Niedergang said that SPCS's English Language Learners component was "tacked on," and a teacher Linda Wiegenfeld said the school would be "an exclusive club for the selective" during the hearing.

In 1996, opponents of the Somerville Charter School - which became Prospect Hill Academy in 2002 - accused the 15 founders of spending public dollars on a "white flight prep school." Today, the charter school is more a magnet for college-bound Haitian-American students than a refuge for white students. PHA Head of School Jed Lippard said the school has become popular among Haitians and is "unapologetically" a college preparatory school.

Less than 15 percent of Prospect Hill's students are white compared to 27 percent in the Somerville Public Schools. The public school district still has a higher percentage of low-income students, special education students and students who were raised speaking a different language than English, though Lippard said PHA is making efforts to identify more English Language Learners, who now comprise 50 percent of the kindergarten class.

Back in 1996, charter schools were a much more recent phenomenon. Gov. Bill Weld had signed the school form into law in 1993, and the first batch of charter schools were approved in 1995, according to Lippard.

The Somerville Charter School was first run by an international, for-profit education company called SABIS, which had opened another charter school the year before in Springfield. In 2002, the charter broke ties with SABIS, changed its name to Prospect Hill Academy, and expanded its region to include Cambridge as well as Somerville.

For many of those involved in the opposition to the 1996 proposal, the debate is long forgotten, but the skepticism toward charter schools is largely unshaken.

"My memory was there wasn't this level of debate," said state Sen. Pat Jehlen, D-Somerville, who argued in a 1996 letter to the Somerville Journal that change should come from within the school district.

"How many alternatives does a city the size of Somerville need?" Spring Hill resident Mike Grunko said in a recent interview. "There are alternatives within the system."

Grunko was quoted in a 1996 Somerville Community News article as saying the charter was "part of the conservative Republican attack on all kinds of unionized workers."

Recently, Grunko who said he barely remembers the anti-charter campaign is "still doubtful" that teaching at a charter could be a long-lasting career. Lippard said that while the school is not unionized, and there is about a 20 percent faculty turnover, but said there are established procedures in place where teachers can dispute management decisions.

In 1996, attorney Alan Rom warned that the charter would "inevitably discriminate against immigrant students and promote racial division in Somerville." Presented with the demographic data on PHA, Rom said PHA was not representative of charter schools in general.

"If I predicted incorrectly, then I'm very happy that that's the case," said Rom on Tuesday. "A comment I made 16 years ago, hopefully has been proven wrong... Hopefully in 16 years, we've come a long way."

Indeed, at the 2011 graduation ceremony, PHA co-valedictorian Elias Estabrook said after coming from Somerville schools PHA had taught him to "feel like home with people from around the world."

Changes within PHA

Lippard acknowledged that PHA was not always as ethnically diverse, and said the founders were mostly white families, but the school has made strides to diversify in recent years, becoming a particularly popular choice in the Haitian community.

Diversity was not part of PHA's mission - which is to prepare students for college - but it has become one of the charter's traits.

There are few ways for school administrators to influence the ethnic makeup of the school besides gaining a reputation in a community and offering services that appeal to particular groups. PHA is lottery based with no entrance exams. Cambridge and Somerville families receive preference, but there are no quotas.

When Lippard joined the school in 2002, there was a major overhaul of the SABIS curriculum, which he said was not in line with state standards. At that time, the school expanded its region to include Cambridge, which he said was uncontroversial in Cambridge because "we sort of flew under the radar."

In 2006, Somerville's recently hired Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi started the first of two major collaborations with PHA - learning from PHA's math assessment, and later the two districts teamed up to bring PHA's collaborative professional development method to Somerville schools.

Both of those collaborations were grant-funded by the state, but there is informal collaboration, too, Lippard said. PHA rents athletic facilities from the city.

According to assessment figures and budget numbers, PHA is doing more with less. PHA has a lower dropout rate, higher graduation rate and better MCAS scores than the Somerville district, according to state statistics.

According to the state, Somerville spends about $15,900 per pupil each year. Lippard said PHA spends about $13,000 per pupil per year. Unlike the Somerville Public Schools, PHA is not unionized.

New school debate

Though the Somerville Progressive Charter School debate might echo the debate from 16 years ago, SPCS would take a totally different approach toward schooling than PHA. PHA, which is a kindergarten-12th grade school, has campuses in East Somerville, Union Square and Central Square, has a longer school day than the district, requires its students to wear uniforms, and provides free SAT training.

If approved for the city, SPCS would focus on science and language, encourage students to think for themselves and would be democratically governed with an emphasis on parent involvement. There would also be after-school help for students who speak other languages.

In 1996, the charter school issue was more partisan, with charter proponents accused of being sops to right-wing ideology. That argument has been less in the forefront during the current debate, but many of what was said in 1996 is repeated today.

"Stimulating innovation, providing options, creating new instructional alternative and strengthening accountability, all aims of a charter school have been an integral part of the Somerville educational agenda for years and will continue to be a top priority," wrote Bruce Desmond in 1996 when he was chairman of the School Committee.

"It's a duplication of effort," said Pierantozzi about SPCS at the December hearing.

The Board of Education plans to vote on the proposal for the K-8 charter school on Feb. 28. SPCS apparently plans to rent the old Saint Anthony School on Somerville Avenue, according to Ward 2 Alderman Maryann Heuston.