August 26, 2012

SABIS charter school proposed for Brockton, Massachusetts

Boston Globe: August 26, 2012

An international for-profit company that currently operates two charter schools in Massachusetts and six in other states has begun the application process for a charter school in Brockton to open in 2014.

The proposed International Charter School of Brockton would be run by Sabis Educational Systems Inc. and overseen by a nine-member board of trustees consisting of parents and community leaders. Plans call for the school to open with 540 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and expand by one grade level each year until reaching capacity at 1,200 students in grades K-12.

The charter school planned for Brockton would follow the same educational practices used by Sabis in its other schools, offering “a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum, accessible to all students,” according to its state application.

At the Sabis-run Springfield International Charter School, a K-12 system on which the Brockton school would be modeled, every senior for 11 years running has been accepted to a college or university by graduation.

In addition to the Springfield charter school, Sabis manages the Holyoke Community Charter School, and will operate the Lowell Collegiate Charter School when it opens in fall 2013.

Area businesswoman Shawni Littlehale, a founding member of the proposed Brockton charter school, said she wants local students to be given educational options that other urban children now have.

“While the Brockton school district is doing somewhat better than it used to, it remains in the lowest 10th percentile for performance in the state,” Littlehale said. “I’ve seen how charter schools have improved education and are closing the achievement gap between minorities and whites. I’m just interested in getting such results for the students of Brockton.”

The state confirmed Brockton’s position in the lowest 10th percentile. But Thomas Minichiello Jr., vice chairman of the Brockton School Committee, took issue with Littlehale’s characterization of his city’s public school system.

“If you take a look at all the different urban school districts, Brockton public schools, with the population we have, are doing well,” Minichiello said. “We’re not just sitting on our hands. We’ve been recognized by many academic bodies nationally for our high school. The middle school is on the way up, and we’re implementing changes to the curriculum to improve the elementary schools. People who do not recognize that don’t know much about Brockton schools.”

Charter schools, created by the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, are tuition-free public schools open to everyone. The proposed charter school in Brockton, for example, would be open to all Brockton residents and to those outside the district should seats become available. Charter schools are independent of the local school district, but are closely overseen by the state, under five-year charters granted by the Board of Education.

As public schools, charter schools cannot select their students, and if prospective candidates outnumber available seats, a public lottery is held.

Public school districts frequently oppose the opening of charter schools in their midst, since they lose state aid dollars connected to student enrollment. In the first year, the 540 students at the proposed Brockton charter school would represent $5.3 million in state education aid, at about $9,900 per student. The per-student estimate was provided by Jose Afonso, director of US business development for Sabis.

According to Afonso, state officials have tried to ease the loss of aid money to districts where charter schools open by phasing out the funding loss over six years. Still, opposition has continued.

“It’s about power and money: the loss of control and the loss of funds,” he said.

Five years ago, Sabis tried to open a Brockton-based charter school to serve students in 13 area school districts. The Brockton school superintendent at the time, Basan Nembirkow, adamantly opposed the plan, and other district superintendents followed. The Board of Education ultimately denied the charter school application.

“I think we spread the net too wide last time, trying to take in too many school districts,” said Faelton Perkins, a founding board member of the Brockton International Charter School. This time, the proposal is limited to Brockton, Perkins said, adding he still expects “a lot of protest” from Brockton public school officials.

Brockton school district spokeswoman Jocelyn Meek said local administrators weren’t surprised by the charter school proposal, and had expected Sabis or another company to apply.

“We feel like we have one of the best urban school systems there are, with a diverse range of programming,” she said. “We’ll keep a watchful eye on this. We’ll see what it is that they think they can offer that we don’t.”

Critics of Sabis frequently note its for-profit status, but Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokesman Jonathan Considine said the status is irrelevant to the state agency, since education officials award the charter to a school’s board of trustees, not to a school’s management company.

“A charter school’s board of trustees may contract with a for-profit or not-for-profit entity to serve as the school’s educational management organization,” Considine said. “We have no position on the use of a for-profit entity.”

Domenic Slowey, spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said Sabis “has an amazing track record. in Massachusetts.

“Their Springfield school is one of the best in the state, and Holyoke far out-performs the public school district,” Slowey said.

The Brockton charter school proposal is one of 22 undergoing initial review by the state education agency.

Sabis has another proposal in addition to the one in Brockton, for a second charter school in Springfield. Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester will invite some or all to move to the next level, which requires submission of more detailed plans, by November.

The state Board of Education will decide in February which charters will be granted.


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