West Springfield Mayor should allow new Hampden Charter School of Science to bring educational opportunity to area children (Guest viewpoint)

Date Published: 
August 6, 2018
Tricia Canavan and Nancy Urbschat
News Type: 

A decade ago, a group of Turkish educators, joined by a diverse group of community leaders, and parents, created The Hampden Charter School of Science, a new public school to serve 500 children in grades 6-12 from Chicopee, Springfield, Ludlow and West Springfield. Its mission is to prepare kids for the jobs of tomorrow with a focus on math, science, and technology.

Fast forward to today. HCSS is one of the highest performing public schools in Western Massachusetts even as it serves a diverse population: 60 percent of its students are African American or Latino and 42 percent are "economically disadvantaged." Nearly every graduate since 2009 has been accepted to a four-year college, with an average of $150,000 in scholarships.

This fall, HCSS plans to open a new charter public school that would replicate this successful model and serve children from Westfield, Holyoke, Agawam and West Springfield. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved the new school after a lengthy process that included a rigorous review and a public hearing in Westfield that attracted overwhelming community support.

The school administration found a site and purchased an empty Catholic school on Main Street in West Springfield. More than 230 children "won" the school's enrollment lottery and are planning to attend when it opens in September.

West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt, however, has vowed to prevent the school from opening, threatening to withhold permits the school will need after renovating the building, and engaging in a misinformation campaign that has taken anti-charter opposition into new territory.

The Mayor's actions have included spreading false rumors about the school leaders' religious and political beliefs - rumors grounded in anti-Muslim bigotry that have led opponents to use works like "terrorists" and "al Qaeda" to smear the school's founders. This kind of language and fear-mongering has no place in our Commonwealth.

The Mayor's accusations have no basis in fact, and have already been reviewed and dismissed on multiple occasions by state education officials. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education listened to nearly three hours of testimony on the issue before approving the school in February 2017. In addition, the state's Acting Education Commissioner wrote a letter to the Mayor stating that "no evidence has been presented" that would indicate any religious of political connections influencing the school's operation or curriculum. The Acting Commissioner also noted that all public charters in Massachusetts operate under the direction of independent Boards of Trustees whose members are approved by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

What's more, not once in the ten years HCSS has been operating in Chicopee has any student, parent or teacher indicated that anything other than a good education is being provided at the school. In fact, current and former students and parents filled the hearing room to support the new school, so families in other communities could have the same opportunities.

This kind of anti-charter campaign puts politics before kids and families. The result is that HCSS families still don't know whether there will be a building for their children to attend this fall.

Regardless of your opinions about charter public schools, this is wrong. HCSS's antagonists are blatantly using children and families as political pawns, wreaking havoc in families' lives just to make life a little bit harder for the charter public school down the street. For anyone who cares about kids and education, that should be unconscionable.

Some people oppose the expansion of charter public schools; that's fine. But when a school has already been approved, when kids are already set to attend it, and when their families just want to know where to send their kids in the fall -- that should not be a political issue.

The parents of the 230 children who have enrolled in this public school and the public school teachers who have been hired to teach them deserve better from their public officials. The Mayor and his allies should allow this public school to open and begin the job of educating children.

Tricia Canavan is the President of United Personnel and Nancy Urbschat is the owner of TSM Design. Both are members of Springfield Business Leaders for Education.