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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Gloucester Community Arts Charter School - Report on Conditions

To:
Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
From:
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
Date:
May 20, 2011

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On October 1, 2010, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (Board) placed the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School (GCACS) on probation through December 2010. At the December 21, 2010, Board meeting, the Board determined that GCACS had substantially complied with the 12 probationary conditions. The Board also determined, however, that the school still faced significant challenges and required further conditions. The Board removed GCACS from probation but imposed a further set of conditions. This memorandum provides a status report on the school's compliance with these conditions, additional information and analysis, and my recommendation to the Board for your consideration at the May 24, 2011, Board meeting.

In summary, the school has not yet met all of the conditions imposed by this Board last December. Significant improvements still need to be made in a number of areas. At the same time, the school has pre-enrolled nearly 200 students for the coming school year, demonstrating both continued parental interest and the prospect of improved finances. The school has also hired an experienced educator to serve as the head of school during the coming year, which will provide much needed additional management capacity. This fall, when the 2011 MCAS results will be complete, we will have our first indication of the school's academic performance.

I am recommending that no action be taken by the Board at this time, thus allowing the school to open for a second year. One of the basic precepts of our charter school accountability program has been that new schools must be given a reasonable amount of time to establish themselves and rise to the level of quality that we expect of charter schools. Given the unique circumstances surrounding the opening of this school, I believe the school has not yet had a sufficient opportunity to demonstrate its worth and performance.

Report on Conditions

Condition 1: The school's executive director shall attend the Office of the Inspector General's training program on Supplies and Services Contracting at the first available opportunity in 2011.

Status: Condition met.
The school's executive director attended and completed an Office of the Inspector General Supplies and Services Contracting training held on February 15-17, 2011. The executive director supplied the Department with a certificate documenting his successful completion of the training.

Condition 2: By February 1, 2011, the school shall have hired a qualified individual for the position of Director of Education.

Status: Condition not met.
On March 2, 2011, the Commissioner had a phone call with the acting chair, Joe Knowles, who confirmed that the school had not hired a director of education due to budgetary constraints. In a letter dated March 11, 2011, the acting chair reported on conditions and outlined the plan to hire a head of school. He stated that the school wishes to change the position of director of education into a head of school. As of May 18, 2011, the school hired a new head of school who has a scheduled start date of July 1, 2011. The selected individual is Jody Ziebarth, currently the principal at the Cambridge Friends School. The Charter School Office (CSO) has requested that GCACS provide job descriptions for the head of school, program coordinator, and executive director (if changed).

Condition 3: By April 1, 2011, the board of trustees shall recruit and submit to the Charter School Office for approval at least one new member with experience and expertise in public sector management.

Status: Condition not met.
An individual with the required public sector background has not joined the GCACS board of trustees. Before the imposition of the above condition and in response to the October probationary conditions, on November 23, 2010, the school's board of trustees submitted the nominations of Arthur Beane and James Caviston to serve on the board, and the Commissioner approved these appointments as part of the earlier conditions of probation. Dr. Beane is a retired teacher, principal, and college instructor with extensive experience in the area of special education. Mr. Caviston has a background in law, finance, and management. He has practiced as an attorney, served as the CFO of a private corporation, and currently heads a non-profit organization. The GCACS board of trustees minutes list Mr. Beane as a board member as of January and Mr. Caviston as a board member as of March 2011.

Condition 4: By April 1, 2011, the school shall submit a financial plan demonstrating viability based on pre-enrollment data for the 2011-12 school year.

Status: Condition met.
The school submitted a financial plan on April 1, 2011, based on an expected enrollment of 200 students. As discussed later in this memorandum, we have subsequently approved a pre-enrollment count of 196 students. The proposed financial plan appears to provide adequate resources for the school to meet its operating needs and to address the remaining conditions that the Board has placed on its charter.

Condition 5: By February 1, 2011, the school shall have submitted for Department approval a corrective action plan to address deficiencies in special education programs as noted in the Department's December 10 site visit, and by April 1, 2011, the school shall have demonstrated substantial progress in completing the corrective action plan.

Status: Condition not met.
The school has added staffing and administrative supports, but deficits remain in regard to special education program administration and service delivery. Compensatory services agreements with parents for services missed by students over the 2010-2011 school year are in the process of being developed for implementation over the summer of 2011.

Condition 6: GCACS must comply with the Attorney General's December 17, 2010, Open Meeting Order ("OML 2010-6") and any other such orders issued by the Attorney General's Office.

Status: Ongoing.
Compliance with the Attorney General's order dated December 17, 2010, is ongoing, as required by the order. We have not received any reports from the Attorney General regarding non-compliance on the part of the school. We have been informed that there is one OML complaint pending and the Attorney General's office expects to issue a determination within the next few weeks.

Condition 7: GCACS promptly and effectively must communicate with the Charter School Office regarding any and all significant matters within a reasonable period of time but in any event no later than 48 hours after the occurrence. GCACS must report to the Charter School Office any and all communications made or received by or on behalf of the school with any government audit, investigative, or law enforcement agency within a reasonable period of time of that communication but in any event no later than 48 hours after the communication. GCACS must copy the Charter School Office on such written communications sent by or on behalf of the school and send a copy of all such written communications received by or on behalf of the school within a reasonable period of time but in any event no later than 48 hours after the communication. GCACS must provide a report and copies to the Charter School Office of all such communications that occurred prior to its probation no later than October 8, 2010.

Status: Condition met.
The Charter School Office has received timely updates on legal matters which fall under this condition. This includes resolution letters from the Attorney General's Office regarding Open Meeting Law complaints and correspondence between the school's legal counsel and the Office of the Investigator General.

Condition 8: GCACS must report all changes in staff to the Charter School Office within a reasonable period of time of knowledge of the change but in any event no later than 48 hours after knowledge of the change.

Status: Condition not met.
Staffing changes such as the dismissal of the Arts Integration Specialist and a grade 4/5 teacher were not reported to the Department as required. The replacement grade 4/5 teacher and the newly hired Dean of Students were not reported to the Department as required. Newly hired special education staff, including a teacher, a contracted testing service provider, and an administrative assistant, were not reported to the Department as required. On the site visit we requested an update on staffing changes, including an explanation of how staffing decisions were made and a current staff roster indicating full- or part-time staff. As of May 18, 2011, the CSO has not received this information.

Other Information

Site visit findings
The Department's Charter School Office conducted site visits on April 8 and April 28, 2011. The April 8 visit was conducted in order to gather evidence of the school's progress in relation to the eight conditions and to gather evidence to support decisions related to the school's viability. The April 28 visit was a follow-up visit to review special education documentation and the school's corrective action plan. The site visit report is attached to this memorandum.

Pre-enrollment data and financial status
The charter school reported a pre-enrollment count of 202 to the Department in March 2011. As part of our review, we verified documentation for 196 students, and this is the number that will be used by the Department in calculating tuition payments. The pre-enrollment number serves as the upper limit on the number of students for whom the school can claim tuition in the following school year.

Municipal population
As has been reported in the press and in correspondence that the Board has received, the 2010 federal census count for the city of Gloucester was 28,789. Although this is lower than the 30,000 threshold for an application for a charter school to serve a single municipality, there is no provision in the law for retroactively changing a charter school's status because of a drop in population. The only requirement is that the municipal population must be 30,000 or more at the time the charter is granted. As a practical matter, changing the school's status from a single-municipality charter to a regional charter would have little impact on either the school or on the sending district.

Recommendation

There is no doubt that Gloucester Community Arts Charter School has a substantial distance to travel before it is a high performing organization. The school has not yet met all of the conditions imposed by this Board in December and its overall performance this year was significantly below our expectations with respect to organizational viability and faithfulness to its charter. The uncertainty around the availability of a facility, the challenges to the granting of the charter and to the school's operation, and many missteps by the school itself led to a chaotic opening. These circumstances were significant factors in the school's enrollment being well below the planned level. Lower enrollment in turn resulted in lower revenues. It has been clear for some time that the school's tuition income this year was simply insufficient to allow it to fully function and meet all of its obligations.

I stated last December that a major indicator for me of the school's potential viability would be the pre-enrollment numbers for next year. As discussed above, we have verified a pre-enrollment count of 196 students, which is a significant increase from the 85 students currently enrolled and the 64 students who were initially enrolled in September 2010. If all or most of the 196 students enroll in September 2011, the school will realize a stable financial base. An improved fiscal base will provide needed resources for addressing many of the conditions that the Board has placed on the school.

Certainly, financial resources alone do not guarantee future success. The anticipated hiring of an experienced educator as the new head of school is another step in the right direction, as is the leadership of the acting chair of the board of trustees. There is still much room for improvement at the board level, both in recruiting new members with needed skills and in a better understanding by all members of their obligations and responsibilities.

The question I have considered is whether to give the school more time to bring about the needed improvements. In answering this question, I relied in part on precedent. It has been the Board's practice over the years, when dealing with struggling charter schools, to give those schools opportunity to improve. There are numerous examples of charter schools that have difficult early years and have then gone on to exemplary performance. We do not yet have any MCAS data on which to evaluate the school's academic performance.

It is no accident that in creating our charter school program, the Legislature provided for a 5-year charter term. They understood that the task of creating a new, high performing public school from scratch is an extraordinarily difficult enterprise even under the best of circumstances. A multi-year horizon gets a school beyond the initial flurry of start-up activities; allows it to receive feedback from our Charter School Office and to respond and adjust to problems; and gives us the chance to examine trends in academic performance. It is my judgment that GCACS should be given this same opportunity.

Accordingly, I am recommending that no action be taken by the Board at this time, and that the school be permitted to open for a second year. The conditions that the Board imposed last December will remain in effect, and I will continue to monitor the school's progress and report back to you periodically.

If you have any questions or require additional information, please contact Barry Barnett, Acting Director of Charter Schools; Jeff Wulfson, Associate Commissioner; or me.

Attachment:

Download PDF Document  Download MS WORD Document
Year One Site Visit Report for GCACS


Last Updated: May 27, 2011
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