Charter-ing a course to Martha’s Vineyard

Falmouth students commute by ferry to attend Island school.

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Eleven-year-old Winter Muric was gearing up for the new school year in Falmouth when she received notice, just before Labor Day weekend, that a space had opened up for her in the sixth grade class at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School (MVPCS). 

She had been on the waiting list since kindergarten, but her memory of a visit to the Charter School all those years ago had faded, and a quick decision at the last minute to start a new school — leaving behind her friends and the only school system she had known — was no small thing. (Disclosure: Winter is this writer’s granddaughter.)

Charter School director Pete Steedman encouraged the family to visit the school again, and offered to pick them up at the ferry dock and drive them to the West Tisbury campus.

Despite her initial trepidation, Winter agreed to go — and her decision about where to attend sixth grade quickly followed.

The school “is definitely very welcoming,” Winter said, when asked her first impressions. “You can see that it is a huge family.”

The MVPCS “district” is comprised of the towns on the Island, and applications from Vineyard students are given first consideration through a lottery, on a space-available basis.

The Charter School is also open to off-Island students once all applicants from the Vineyard have been processed, Steedman explained in a recent interview.

As Winter Muric was making her decision to attend the Charter School, another Falmouth student, 10-year-old Tallulah Bossi, was offered a place in the fifth-grade class.

Faced with the same difficult choice about changing schools at the start of the academic year, she waited a few weeks into the term in Falmouth before deciding to attend.

“She was not thinking she would want to go,” Tallulah’s mother, Carla Kihlstedt of Woods Hole said of the day she and her daughter went to visit the Charter School. 

Kihlstedt described their arrival at the school as having a profound impact on them both.

“Tallulah is not much of a breakfast eater, so she was hungry when we got there. She walked in the door and was handed a bowl of hot oatmeal with berry compote made with local fruit, and the whole place smelled like home,” she said.

The next morning, Tallulah joined Winter aboard the 7:15 am Patriot boat Quickwater, which runs from Falmouth Harbor to Oak Bluffs; climbed into the regional school district van that meets them at the dock and takes them to West Tisbury; and started fifth grade at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. 

Working out the commute on such short notice for these young students from Falmouth, too, was no small thing.

Several options were tried in order to successfully connect boat rides with the town or school buses. For the first two weeks of school, when Winter was the only one commuting, she was accompanied by an adult each day to the Island and back.

Chaperones in the form of grandparents, friends, and neighbors eager to support Winter’s determination to attend the Charter School volunteered to help.

By the time Tallulah enrolled in the Charter School, a secure commute had been hammered out via the 48-foot Quickwater from Falmouth Harbor (described on the Patriot Boat website as a “rugged little ferry”); the school district van (available only in the mornings); and a driver (who has undergone a background check) paid by the parents to drive the girls back to the boat in the afternoons.

Children under 13 years old, Winter’s mother, Taylor Heyl of Falmouth, belatedly discovered, are not allowed to ride the Steamship Authority ferries alone.

“The commute by boat across Vineyard Haven Sound is an adventure that has given Winter confidence, and a sense of independence, almost worldliness, that has been so positive for her,” Heyl said.

Both Winter and Tallulah said that the boat ride is a favorite part of the day. For Winter, because she and Tallulah have time to talk and share thoughts; for Tallulah, because the ride is “really fun, even on ‘lazy’ days when the boat doesn’t rock from side to side as if it’s going to fall over.”

“Oh, my God — that they get up early to get on the boat and get here every day shows a huge commitment to education and school for such young kids,” Charter School teacher Mathea Morais said. “And when they get here, they are fully focused.”

Morais is Winter’s English Language Arts teacher, Tallulah’s English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, and both girls’ advisor.

“The Falmouth students really bring a new element to the school,” math teacher Scott Goldin said. “The other students all understand that the Falmouth kids leave early in the morning from Falmouth, and that they make a huge commitment to come here. This develops the sentiment that this is a school students want to come to that badly. This speaks highly of our school.”

Small classes at the Charter School facilitate more individualized attention between teacher and student, and having K-12 students in one school creates an intergenerational learning community.

“There is a wonderful model of kindness and respect, which the big kids get to model for the younger ones,” Kihlstedt said.

“The familiarity and ownership the students have with their environment is what drew me to the school,” Heyl said. “It clearly is a place where kids have fun learning.”

“There is a social component to it,” Kihlstedt said of the teaching model. “It’s learning that is not about sitting at a desk by yourself. Tallulah wants to step into that.”

When asked what she likes best about the school, Winter did not hesitate. “The food and the teachers,” she said.

“The teachers understand that some things have to be explained in a different way for a student to learn,” Winter said. “They also take an interest in knowing some things take time to finish.”

The teachers “have an engaging and interesting way of teaching the class,” Tallulah said of her experience.

The Charter School ambience seems to draw people in from the moment they walk into the large, great-hall-type room filled with light, works of art, and a piano, where a basket of fruit for the taking sits by the front desk and the walls are lined with books.

“The ethos of the school is that it takes limitations and makes something positive out of them,” Kihlstedt said.

“There is no library, so the walls are lined with books. There is no gym, so the kids go outside every day. There is no cafeteria, so students eat in their classrooms or outside,” she said.

Winter and Tallulah pointed out that every child has a cleanup job after lunch, which must be completed before any of them can go out to play.

Every school day at the Charter School begins with “morning meeting,” where all 180 students come together in the main hall for songs, announcements — such as birthdays and “Student of the Day” — and the day’s lunch menu. 

“Morning meeting is student-led by a different advisor’s group each week,” Morais said. “We start each week by pulling a ‘kindness gesture’ out of a jar, to remind students about being kind to one another.”

“We teach our students to be good people. It takes skill, guidance, and practice for them to learn how to be part of a community,” she said.

“Winter is sensitive and in tune with nature and the arts,” Heyl said when asked why she believes the Charter School is a good fit for her child. “The school has the ability to nurture and support her interests, and allows her to design her own personal education plan (PEP), so she is in control of her academic goals and achievements, which I think is really important,” she said.

Morais said that both Winter and Tallulah seem to be “absolutely in the right place” at the Charter School. “It can be a hard adjustment, but they seem to feel comfortable, and they participate, which is everything you want for students,” she said.

By the end of September, Winter’s younger brother, Finley Muric, 9, and his friend Joaquim Verslycke, 9, spent a day visiting the Charter School, because next year’s fifth grade class may have openings.

“I knew that I would want to go there the first step that I took out of the car,” Finley said of his experience.

“I felt like there are really nice people there, and that the lunches and snacks are delicious. Their garden is really calming, and the teachers are really nice,” he said. “I liked the amount of time we played outside.”

“It looked like a house, not like a school,” Joaquim said. “I liked that it has a soccer field. It has a more casual environment where kids could move around. I liked that we did our math outside in the garden. It is nice that it is not a big school.” 

Joaquim’s mother, Patricia Pinto da Silva, said she became curious about the Charter School when she heard that her friends’ children were attending. 

While she strongly supports the Falmouth school system, where she is actively involved in a number of ways, Pinto da Silva said she is always interested in innovation around education and different ways of learning.

“We live in a very small town, and I want my son to have a broad perspective on what the world has to offer; I want him to know what else is out there. Wherever he is, I want him to know it is based on choices,” she said.

When she arrived for a visit to the Charter School, Pinto da Silva said, she liked the overall feel of the space. “It felt more like a public library than a school in some ways,” she said.

Pinto da Silva also said that the Charter School’s commitment to project-based learning stood out as a strength to her, and that she has seen this method work well when implemented in the public elementary school in Falmouth.

“I am also amazed by the healthy food that they make and serve, which is connected to the local culture and environment,” she said.

Steedman, who is a Falmouth resident, stressed that he does not feel in competition with the Falmouth schools, for which he has high regard. His own three children are currently attending Falmouth High School, and are happy there.

“It’s all about individual choice. We hope that we are seen as an attractive option for students all over — on the Island as well as the Cape,” he said. Of the young students from Falmouth, he said, “We are delighted to have them here.”

The Charter School, Steedman said, is “blessed with some incredible teachers” who understand the importance that “responsive classroom” plays in setting the tone for the day. 

Responsive classroom is an approach to teaching that focuses on the strong link between academic success and social-emotional learning.

“Many students who come from other schools find their voice here,” Goldin said. “The Falmouth students bring a lot of strength to our community; it is a pleasure to have them.”