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Horace Mann charter school clears first hurdle

Date: 8/27/2014

SPRINGFIELD – The Springfield School Committee unanimously approved the first step toward the conversion of one of the city’s middle schools into a Horace Mann charter school independently operated by UP Education Network.

The decision came at the meeting on Aug. 21 and was not without many questions from committee members, several of whom expressed concerns they had not been given adequate time to look over the prospectus offer by Scott Given, the president and CEO of UP Education Network. 

Given explained that Superintendent Daniel Warwick approached him six months ago to consider bringing the program to Springfield to help one of the city’s level four middle schools – the lowest level of academic achievement before the Commonwealth assumes the operation of a school.

According to the Springfield Public School website, the Chestnut Accelerated Middle School, the John F. Kennedy Middle School and the M. Marcus Kiley Middle School were all at level four at the time of their last evaluation in 2013. Which school would be converted is still to be determined and Warwick added the process to determine the school would take another year.

Warwick said the new school ratings would be released around Sept. 15.

UP currently operates five schools in Boston and Lawrence. If approved, the Springfield school would be its largest, Given said. He noted significant increases in test scores in the schools.

He added the present plan would be to open the newly reorganized school on 2016 and it would serve up to 800 students. 

To design the school Given said, “It’s really complex work.”

Warwick explained that there would be no additional expense to bring UP to the city.

“It would be cost neutral,” Warwick said.    

Given explained all of the schools UP operates are union schools but the state legislation for charter schools allows for “flexibility from many aspects of collective bargaining.” He noted that UP teachers would come back to work on Aug. 1 for a month of preparation. Both the school year and the school day would be longer and the teachers would work a nine-hour day.

Teachers who were working at the school would be asked to reapply for their jobs, Given said. Under questioning from School Committee member Peter Murphy, Given said that about 5 percent of the teachers would be retained. About a third of the teachers, “transition out of the local district or retire,” Given said. Another third of the teachers with professional teacher status would be reassigned to other schools in the district.

UP would then recruit staff to create a diverse workforce at the school.

While the school would use its current public funding to operate, Given explained there would be a board of trustees who would have immediate control of the school with UP.

When asked by School Committee member Barbara Gresham about who would be on the board, Given said no employees would be allowed and members of the community would compose the board.

“I hope that many of them would be from Springfield,” he added.

He said the process before the school opened would include meeting with the families and students who currently attend the school; training the schools principal and director of operations; and designing the school’s model to meet the needs of the students and the community.

Answering a question from School Committee member Rosa Perez, Given said the present students would have the first right to attend the school.

School Committee member Dr. Clifton McFadden expressed his concerns about the number of questions he and his colleagues had about UP and the fact they were being asked to approve the prospectus that night.

Warwick said Up would return on Oct. 23 with a detailed application for the committee to approve. Given added the state must then approve the plan for the charter school to form.

The committee was told it must approve the prospectus that night in order to move the process forward and was assured there would be the opportunities for additional meetings with Given about the plans.

“This is either now or never to move to the next step,” Mayor Domenic Sarno said.

The School Committee also approved a new partnership with Springfield College with the formation of the William Beckett Scholarship fund that would award a full scholarship to a student of color from Springfield who wishes to be a teacher in the Springfield Public Schools. The graduate would then be hired as a teacher for the Springfield district.

Dr. Jill Russell, vice president for strategic planning and executive assistant to the president of Springfield College, said the new scholarship program is “very much in line with Springfield College’s priorities.”

The scholarship is named William Beckett, the first person awarded a degree from Springfield College in 1906. He was of African American descent and Russell said, “He led a noble life of service to others.” 

School Committee member Christopher Collins asked his colleagues to consider finding the funding in the budget to create a second scholarship opportunity.

“I think if you’re stepping up, we should step up,” Collins said.