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School Committee Condemns Charter School Proposal

By Claire A. Pasternack, Crimson Staff Writer

The Cambridge School Committee voted unanimously last night to urge a state ban on new charter schools and condemned a proposal to create a new charter high school in Cambridge.

City officials said the proposed Cambridge Community Charter School would threaten the district’s schools by draining its students, stealing a portion of its funding and failing to allow the district to recover from a messy schools consolidation last year.

Last month, the State Board of Education invited the charter school to submit a formal charter proposal. But last night, the school committee voiced its opposition to the creation of the school and asked the board to reject the proposal.

The proposed school also received strong criticism because one of its founders, former high school principal Paula M. Evans, has been widely accused of failing Cambridge once already.

Evans was brought into Cambridge in 1999 to revamp the system’s ailing high school and then quit two years later after drastically restructuring the school, citing school committee micro-management.

“She had a chance to run our high school,” said Cambridge Teachers Association President Paul Toner, who offered a scathing condemnation of the charter proposal at the beginning of last night’s meeting. “Nobody made her leave—she got frustrated and quit. This is Paula Evans’s sour grapes. In my opinion this is her getting back at the school committee.”

Toner also said he feared that such a charter school—which aims to focus on science and technology—would draw mainly middle-class students, thereby reducing the much touted diversity at Cambridge’s high school.

And committee member Alfred B. Fantini said he was particularly worried that a new charter school would drain funds from the Cambridge Public Schools—siphoning off as much as $15,000 per pupil.

“That’s an unfair burden for any school system to carry,” he said.

Last night the committee also reconsidered the diversity plan which it uses to balance racial and socioeconomic demographics in its elementary schools. The district assigns students to schools based on race and socioeconomic status while giving as much choice as possible to parents.

The discussion followed the release of this year’s enrollment statistics, which showed that six of the city’s elementary schools have achieved socioeconomic balance, as compared with only four last year. An additional five schools have increased socioeconomic diversity in their student populations.

When the committee voted to include socioeconomic status as a factor nearly two years ago, it projected that it would bring all of its schools to within five percent of the overall socioeconmoic balance of the district by this year.

But because of turmoil surrounding a plan that closed three of the system’s 15 elementary schools last year, newly-appointed Superintendent Thomas Fowler-Finn proposed waiting a year before bringing the district to the 5 percent standard.

“Given the great change that the district has experienced over the past year, now is not a time to change guidelines once again,” Fowler-Finn wrote in a letter to the committee.

City officials said creating further socioeconomic balance by controlling which schools kindergartners can enter would restrict the choice parents have in choosing schools, further lowering dipping public confidence in the city’s schools.

While they affirmed the plan’s goals, Fowler-Finn and committee members nevertheless offered some skepticism about its overall effectiveness.

“I’m afraid that making more progress on the balance is going to more rapidly restrict choice,” Fowler-Finn said.

“If year after year I keep seeing the same schools with the same populations, I’m going to lose faith that this is working,” said committee member Richard Harding Jr.

Cambridge’s acting affirmative action officer also released hiring data on the system last night, showing a general lack of change in the percentage of minority teachers district-wide.

The committee discussed methods to recruit and hire more minority staff members, particularly as mentors to the district’s large number of minority students.

“The recruiting part is probably the single most important thing,” Fowler-Finn said.

—Staff writer Claire A. Pasternack can be reached at cpastern@fas.harvard.edu.

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