LOWELL -- One hundred years ago, immigrant children labored inside the walls of the old brick mill on Jackson Street, making shoes. Today, 676 students in grades K-6 of 16 nationalities, speaking 20 different languages, sit in clusters in classrooms, reading. They are learning about world geography, anatomy and fostering community. They are working to build a better future.
Two years ago, the Lowell Community Charter Public School was on the brink of extinction. Chronically low MCAS scores prompted state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester to threaten nonrenewal of the 10-year-old school's charter unless trustees contracted with a professional management team and made administrative and curriculum changes. Grades 7 and 8 were eliminated.
Yesterday morning, Head of School Kathy Egmont, who came aboard in July 2010, told a group of two dozen community and business leaders the school has made an impressive turnaround and has petitioned Chester to reinstate Grade 7 for the 2012-13 school year. Eventually she would like the school to revert back to being a K-8 facility.
In 2009, 33 percent of LCCPS students scored advanced or proficient on the English MCAS, 26 percent scored in those categories on the math exam.
In 2011, those figures had increased significantly to 43 percent in English and 42 percent in math.
Egmont said state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials have conducted two site visits at the school.
Once those results are released, Egmont said she expects the DESE will determine the school has met all of the conditions placed upon it as part of the agreement that allowed the doors to remain open.
Today's education world is often overrun by data, Egmont said, and data, though important, do not always tell the whole story. Even at its low point, 21 percent of the school's last eighth-grade class were accepted into private schools, including Phillips Academy and the Groton School.
At LCCPS, 83 percent of the students come from low-income families. English is the primary language of less than half of them. However, they are still expected to meet the same standards on MCAS as students who have been speaking English their entire lives.
"Children in inner-city urban schools are fighting against the odds," Egmont said.
"People think they can't learn or they don't want to learn, but they will rise to the occasion if they can speak well and read well and are confident that they have something to offer."
There is a strong focus at the school on teaching English, with students in grades K-2 immersed in phonics and, in an effort to make up for the years when things were not run as efficiently, students in grades 5 and 6 are a "serious phonics" program to get them up to speed. Additionally, every teacher from those who specialize in social studies to those who teach physical education, are teaching English and math skills.
"Learning to read and write English and learning math skills is the job of every teacher in the school," Egmont said, adding the school also offers a program for gifted children.
The LCCPS is also working to form partnerships in the community, including with Lowell Public Schools. Historically, there has been tension between the LPS and charter schools, but Egmont and the current board of trustees are working to build a relationship with the district, which could include sharing best practices and curriculum ideas.
"We can all co-exist and make each other better," Egmont said.
The LCCPS is run by a board of trustees, not a private education-management firm.
Those run by private for-profit companies hold their curriculum as proprietary information and do not share it with other schools. Last summer, LCCPS severed its five-year contract with Renaissance School Systems after one year.
Egmont said later this week the school will announce it is bringing in an external partner to assist in strategic planning, English-language learner curriculum, branding and marketing.
"The school is on the road to serving as a model for urban education," said board of trustees Chairman Carol Kirstead.