Charter school celebrates 10 years as an education island on the Island
Students Bimala Carl-Jones (left) and Chelsea Phaneuf get down to business during a discussion led by Jonah Maidoff, social studies teacher. Photos by Ralph Stewart
A typical day at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School begins on "Main Street," the building's long central corridor where all of the students, teachers and staff sit on the floor wall-to-wall listening to the morning's announcements. In a setting reminiscent of the one-room schoolhouses of yesteryear, there is a feeling of camaraderie and intimacy.
Bob Moore stands in the background, acting as an observer rather than principal as a group of students runs the show. "We begin the day as a community," Mr. Moore explained. "It creates a culture of care and concern."
Students talk excitedly about the past weekend's successful workshop to make scarecrows as a fundraiser for arts programs, and upcoming school events, a fall fair and a community sing. After the day's weather forecast is read, Mr. Moore uses the opportunity to prompt a discussion of barometric pressure.
The morning gathering ends, and as students pass their principal to go to their classrooms, they call out an informal, "Hi, Bob" — no "mister" or "missus" used here for faculty or staff.
The charter school gathering on "Main Street," where it all begins each morning.
The smaller size of the West Tisbury-based school off State Road lends itself to this informality, with 158 students currently enrolled in kindergarten through grade 12. "I think the charter school has become a ‘niche' on the Island by giving families another choice in education," said Mr. Moore. "One size doesn't fit all. We need to be aware of and open to the needs of the students when we create educational opportunities."
As the school marks its 10th anniversary this year, it is also seeking charter renewal for another five years from the state. This week, a team of four state evaluators is visiting the school for four days. "We have to be able to answer three questions - are we academically successful, are we a viable institution, and are we following the mission of our charter," said Mr. Moore.
The Massachusetts Board of Education will review the team's findings and decide whether to renew the charter by early January. "It's an important system to have in place, this monitoring system. We should not shy away from being scrutinized," Mr. Moore said. "We welcome this opportunity. We're proud of what we're doing and are excited by where the school is going in the next five to ten years."
Academically, the charter school posted strong MCAS test results for 2005, exceeding the state percentage of students performing at the proficient or advanced levels except for grade eight math scores, which matched state percentages. More important was the trend demonstrated by the grade eight math students over time, as they had increased their percentages over their grade six scores by 11 points.
What is a charter school?
Explaining what defines a charter school, Mr. Moore said, "Charter means a contract with the state. The difference of a charter school is that we're all answerable directly to the Massachusetts Department of Education. Our teachers are not part of a teacher's union. We are our own school district — an island on an Island."
The charter school's operating budget is about $2.4 million this year. "We open school up based on last year's figures," Mr. Moore said. "We have no idea how much money we'll receive until March, based on legislation as to how much state education money is appropriated."
The state would allow 180 students at the school this year under the terms of the charter agreement, which is capped at 9 percent of each Island school district's budget for state education Chapter 70 funds. The number of students allowed to attend the charter school from each town differs, depending on the town's educational cost per student. For example, while this might translate into 38 students from the up-Island district, in Tisbury it may be 36. Mr. Moore said the school prefers to keep enrollment around 160, a number that works well for its programs.
"Our mission is multi-age classrooms with project-based learning and an individual, personalized education plan for every student," said Mr. Moore. "We spend a lot of time trying to pay attention to the passions and interests of the students and tie those into our curriculum."
In the elementary grades, a study of the migration of monarch butterflies to Mexico, for example, integrates science, geography, and social studies. For grade 7-8 students, this year's world history curriculum will tie into a spring trip to Italy with their teacher, Jonah Maidoff, to see firsthand the cities and artwork they have studied.
Students are divided into multi-age, combined-grade classrooms. For example, there are two grade 1-2 classes of six- and seven-year-olds. The reduced class size enhances the school's emphasis on small group learning overall.
In a subject such as high school math, groups are very individualized, with about 8 to 10 students each. "It takes manpower to provide individualized instruction," said Mr. Moore. "We have to know the children and where they are."
The ratio of teacher to students at the charter school is one to about 10 to 13. In praise of the faculty, Mr. Moore said, "We have been able to attract and retain a wonderful talented group of teachers, and been able to build together a curriculum, culture and environment conducive to teaching."
The school evolves
In the process of bringing all of those elements together, the school has undergone quite an evolution since opening in September 1996 with 75 students. Classes were held in its main corridor and four trailers, which were removed when classroom "pods" were added one by one when building funds could be squeezed out of the school's operating budget.
Now the main corridor, lined with bookshelves, functions as the school's library. A kitchen serves up hot meals, which students eat in their classrooms. "We need a big space," said Mr. Moore. "We don't have an art room, and there is no inside space for a gym for students to use during bad weather." The school grounds contain a soccer field and volleyball area.
Unlike larger schools, the atmosphere is decidedly quiet and lacks the chaos of students rushing back and forth between classes. "We put a lot of value on how we spend time in school. There is not a lot of travel for the middle school and high school," Mr. Moore said. "We're focused when we're here at school. It is more calming - it is a benefit for teachers and students to work in a focused environment."
That environment helps him and the teachers to get to know the students quite well over the span of possibly thirteen school years, Mr. Moore said. "We have conversations about learning styles, and believe every student can be successful. Our goal is when they leave here, they feel confident to pursue whatever options they have available to them, whether it is college or a vocation."
In reflecting on his years at the school's helm, Mr. Moore described them as "an extraordinary professional experience, helping building an organization from the bottom up." While he said he looks forward to celebrating the school's tenth anniversary, it is obvious that Mr. Moore's vision for its future goes decades beyond.