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Alma del Mar’s expansion plans covered in U.S. News & World Report

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Despite initial opposition from the mayor of New Bedford, community members, and state voters who didn’t want to allow charter schools to expand in Massachusetts, EL Education partner school Alma del Mar succeeded in winning support for its plans to add nearly 450 spaces for students in kindergarten through 8th grade.

According to coverage that ran in U.S. News & World Report, the agreement with the state education commissioner stipulates that enrollment would forego the lottery system typically used by charter schools in lieu of a special zoning system. Through this system, the city will reconfigure its school boundaries and form a neighborhood zone specifically for the new Alma del Mar campus. Students who live in the newly drawn zone can enroll, and the school can operate independently of the school district as before.

Will Gardner, founder and executive director of Alma del Mar, says that the zoned neighborhood model bolsters the school’s emphasis on building relationships with families. "That's already a strength of what we do," he says. "What I'm hoping with the neighborhood model is that it will magnify our parent outreach." •

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Charting a New Course: A Charter School Experiment in Massachusetts

Massachusetts has a groundbreaking plan to let charter schools expand—if they promise a preference for students in their communities.

By Lauren Camera, Education Reporter
U.S. News & World Report
Jan. 22, 2019

Massachusetts, where voters said, “No, thank you,” just two years ago to expanding charter schools, is poised to test a new model for the charter sector, potentially paving the way for other states and school districts looking to grow their charter sector in a politically fraught environment.

In what looks to be the first of its kind anywhere in the country, Massachusetts state education commissioner Jeffrey Riley announced this week that he’d brokered an agreement with the mayor of New Bedford and a charter school there to allow the school to open a new campus in the city so long as it enrolls students like a traditional neighborhood school.

The charter school, Alma del Mar, which currently enrolls about 450 students in kindergarten through grade eight, had applied to the state to add nearly 1,200 seats across two new schools. But its proposal, as highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion article, has faced opposition from the mayor and others who see charter schools – public schools that operate autonomously – as siphoning funds from the traditional school system.

The local controversy is part teachers union talking points and part political hangover from voters shooting down a 2016 ballot measure known as Question 2 that would have increased enrollment caps for charter schools.

The Massachusetts charter law currently caps the percentage of students enrolled in charter schools in any one school district at 9 percent of the student population. But if that school district is low-performing and falls into the bottom 10 percent of the poorest performing school districts in the state, the cap is elevated to 18 percent.

New Bedford is one of the most chronically low-performing school districts in the state. But students at Alma del Mar, which has been operating there since 2011 and serves low-income students for whom English is not their first language, consistently perform as well as students in the best school districts in the state.

“I intend to oppose it because I don’t believe that this is the right thing for the city,” New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said just months ago about Alma del Mar’s formal application to expand.

But Mitchell is now on board, thanks to a newly minted agreement in which the city would reconfigure its school boundaries, creating a neighborhood zone specifically for the new Alma del Mar campus from which the school would over time draw 450 students in kindergarten through grade eight.

Notably, enrollment in the new charter school would not be through a lottery – the system used for enrollment by most charter schools across the country, including at Alma del Mar. Instead, only students who live in the newly drawn zone would be allowed to enroll. No other elementary or middle schools, traditional public or otherwise, would compete, and the new school would be allowed to operate independently of the school district, just as charter schools do.

As part of the agreement, New Bedford would convey a facility for the school that it’s not currently using and which is in need of repairs. The new Alma del Mar campus would open in August 2019, enrolling just 200 children in kindergarten, first, second and sixth grades, and expand in the years following.

“This agreement contemplates a fairer way to do charter schools – fairer to cities, fairer to taxpayers and fairer to students in district schools,” Mitchell said this week. “It will level the playing field by requiring the new charter school to accept all students in its neighborhood.”

People familiar with the Bay State’s education politics say the new agreement is textbook Riley, who made a name for himself before being appointed commissioner in 2018 by successfully turning around the long-troubled Lawrence Public Schools.

“This partnership is the product of outside-the-box thinking,” said Riley of the new charter school model.

Indeed, it walks a political tightrope and includes sweeteners for both sides, but nothing so grand that one side feels as though it’s getting the short end of the stick. From the charter school perspective, it’s being allowed to serve more students, keep its autonomy and, in this case, inherit a property to house the new school. From the city perspective, it’s limiting the potential expansion and can better financially forecast for upcoming enrollment shifts.

In Massachusetts, per-pupil state funding follows a child from a traditional public school to a charter school. Having a zoned enrollment will make it easier for district officials to predict any funding losses, as opposed to a lottery enrollment, which could pull a handful of students from each of the dozens of schools the city operates.

To be sure, similar models exist: Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which is a portfolio of the worst-performing schools across the state that are either handed over to charter school operators or run directly by the state itself, exudes much of the same charter-district partnership qualities. In New Orleans, every school in the parish is a charter school. And in choice-friendly cities like Washington, D.C., and Denver, students who live in zones that include charter schools, or students who are walking-distance from charter schools, get preference for enrollment in those schools. But they still must enter the lottery system.

“We are grateful that the district is partnering with a charter school to do this work, and it shows that districts and charters can collaborate post-Question 2,” says Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “The fact that the charter is also getting a facility is great news.”

But Rees was cautious about heaping praise on the model, underscoring how early it still is in the process. “We don’t know how this collaboration is going to work going forward,” she says. “There are just a lot of questions still pending.”

Top of mind, she says, is the fact that charter schools are, by definition, schools of choice. What happens, she questions, when that’s no longer the case, and enrollment is determined by a zone?

Will Gardner, founder and executive director of Alma del Mar, says he’s interested in the idea of a zoned neighborhood model because of the emphasis the school already places on building relationships with families, which includes annual visits to the homes of its students and providing cellphones to teachers who regularly text with parents.

“That’s already a strength of what we do,” Gardner says. “What I’m hoping with the neighborhood model is that it will magnify our parent outreach.”

Reese says she looks forward to watching the new partnership unfold.

“Perhaps if this takes off and becomes a model, it could open the door for other districts to invite charters to run their schools,” Rees says. “I certainly think it’s something our sector would be interested in if districts were interested in partnering with us.”

The state board of education is expected to vote on the plan at their Jan. 22 meeting, making it official.