January 14, 2019
NEW BEDFORD — The former Kempton School would re-open under the direction of Alma del Mar in August, if the state education board approves the plan Jan. 22.
DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley recommended Monday to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that Alma del Mar expand to a second site that the city owns but isn’t using, serving 450 students in grades K-8.
“We’re just excited at the opportunity to serve more kids and families, first and foremost, and I am particularly interested in this new proposal because I think it gives us an opportunity to be even more deeply embedded in the community we serve,” said Will Gardner, founder and executive director of Alma del Mar.
Originally, the charter school requested 1,188 more seats and to open two new schools. However, after months of public debate, city leaders, Alma del Mar and Riley reached an agreement on the charter school’s request for expansion that involves the closed elementary.
Not everyone was happy about the agreement, though. The New Bedford Educators Association, according to its president Lou St. John, is calling on the BESE to reject any proposed charter school expansion in the city.
The association “is against adding even a single seat to charter schools. Charters are really private schools that use public funds, and they do not help us address the needs of every student for a high-quality public education,” St. John said in an emailed statement.
Mayor Jon Mitchell said the new proposed site is the former Horatio A. Kempton Elementary School on Shawmut Avenue, which closed in 2015 and was reported to save the district $235,741.
He said he gives Alma credit for being willing to take on this challenge. “Most charter operators wouldn’t have the guts to do it,” he said.
New Bedford Public Schools plans to create a neighborhood zone of students who would attend the new Alma del Mar campus, according to the commissioner’s office. The new campus would enroll students from the neighborhood instead of using a lottery.
This would be the first time that a charter school and a city have agreed to integrate a charter school into the district’s student assignment system.
The district already had plans to review its neighborhood boundaries because there are a couple of schools, such as Normandin Middle, that have a lot of students, Superintendent Thomas Anderson said.
About the new proposed plan, Anderson said, “It’s an easier situation for us to be in as a district.”
Alma del Mar will pay for the improvements to the building, said Jacqueline Reis of the commissioner’s office. Gardner confirmed Alma would pay for operating costs. The school built in 1901 doesn’t have a functioning boiler, according to Mitchell.
Allowing Alma del Mar to reduce its facilities cost while expanding will benefit the school and its scholars, Gardner said. One of the big challenges for Massachusetts charter schools is that they don’t have access to long-term capital funds like the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
In an emailed statement, Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy called the proposed agreement “unacceptable,” noting the charter school will “drain much-needed funds” from the district.
“We wish that state education officials would put half as much energy into supporting and funding our district public schools as they put into finding new ways to force communities to accept —and pay for – privately run charter schools.”
Mitchell said the transfer of the Kempton School building to Alma del Mar would take a vote from both the School Committee and City Council.
Given approval, Alma is set to open the new campus in August to serve 200 children in kindergarten, first, second and sixth grades.
For the city, taxpayers and students in the district schools,“This is a much fairer way to do charter schools,” Mitchell said.
In the DESE news release, Rep. Chris Hendricks, D-New Bedford, called the compromise “very encouraging.” In a Nov. 7 letter to Riley, both Hendricks and Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral said they didn’t support the addition of charter school seats in New Bedford at the time as proposed in two applications before the department (including Global Learning Charter Public School asking for 100 seats).
“I am excited that Alma will be able to grow at the new location with children from the immediate neighborhood,” Hendricks said in the statement.
“Also, I am very proud of the way Mayor Mitchell went to bat for New Bedford Public School students. I hope we can continue to collectively work on the problems within our education system in Massachusetts the way Mayor Mitchell and Alma’s Will Gardner have done today.”
In the news release, Riley said said, “This partnership is the product of outside-the-box thinking by New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell and the strong leadership and dedication to all students of Alma del Mar Executive Director Will Gardner. They put aside their differences to focus on the best interests of all New Bedford children.”