Lowell charter school's rebound on track

Date Published: 
December 11, 2013
Katie Lannan
News Type: 

LOWELL -- Fifth-grader Jeff Danquah started going to Lowell Community Charter Public School in first grade. He doesn't want to walk away from the school for good 18 months from now, when he finishes sixth grade.

"I can't leave here," he said. "It's my home, a home away from home."

"I would stay here as long as I could," echoed Melina Jimenez, a fellow fifth-grader.

Jeff and Melina might get their wish, pending the outcome of a vote by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education next week.

The board is scheduled to act Tuesday on a recommendation from the state's education commissioner that the school start offering seventh and eighth grade again, after a year without them.

Commissioner Mitchell Chester also recommended approval for the school's request to add a preschool grade for 4-year-olds and raise its enrollment cap from 640 to 800, to accommodate the additional students in new grades.

"This is sort of the final transforming of the school, from a school that is troubled to one that is high-achieving," Head of School Kathy Egmont said Tuesday, a week before the board's vote.

In February 2010, the state put Lowell Community Charter Public School on probation, based on problems with its academic performance and governance. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education put them on a correction plan that called for a cutback in both grades offered and maximum enrollment.

As part of that plan, grades seven and eight were eliminated at the end of the last school year.

The school was taken off of probation in February, thanks to what Chester described in a memo as "strong improvement in LCCPS' academic results" and "evidence of improved structures, systems, administrative management and oversight."

Last week, Chester recommended that the board sign off on the Jackson Street charter school's request to amend its charter with the extra grades, deeming it a "proven provider" of education.

"Because of the charter school's continued solid academic performance, including its Level 1 status for two years; its overall success in recruiting, retaining and successfully serving a high-needs student population and its compliance with applicable state, federal and local laws, I recommend that the board approve the school's request," Chester wrote.

Continued growth in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment system test scores earned the school a "Level 1" designation for the past two years. On this year's tests, a higher percentage of the school's high-needs students -- those who are English-language learners, come from a low-income family or require special education programs -- earned scores of at least "proficient" than in the same population statewide.

More than 91 percent of the school's 665 students are designated as high-needs.

Along with other letters from community members, the commissioner received around 30 letters of support from families of the school's students and a petition signed by 127 parents.

"It's a testament to our students, our parents, our teachers, our board members, everyone," Egmont said. "Everyone is helping to get our school to this point."

If the board approves the change, the school can start offering seventh and eighth grade and K1, or kindergarten for 4-year-olds, next year.

Egmont said the school would add three or four new teachers and an extra counselor. In two years, when the current sixth-graders would hit eighth grade, a new administrator would be added.

Seventh- and eighth-grade classes would help the charter school's students transition to high school more smoothly, Egmont said.

A full-day program for 4-year-olds would give them an extra year to learn math and reading-readiness skills, as well as English, if they don't speak it at home.

Egmont said a slight shift in the school's philosophy made the turnaround possible.

When the school was first founded by a group of parents in 2000, she said, their priority was to create a safe haven for children from diverse backgrounds, providing them with an atmosphere of stability and support.

"Now we would say we want to be that, but we're also a school with a rigorous academic program," Egmont said. "The growth is from seeing the mission with a new lens, where you don't have to pick between the two. Both things are possible."