hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

January 18, 2012

Charters welcome new school

By Tim McCarthy

School officials are planning to convert the Tilton Elementary School into an "innovation school" next fall, and leaders of Haverhill's two charter schools say they welcome the competition.

Allowed to operate under their own "charter-like" innovation plans, innovation schools will give public school districts a new way to compete with the growing number of successful charter schools across the state.

Haverhill's two charter schools are Hill View Montessori Charter Public School and Silver Hill Horace Mann Charter School.

Both schools operate independently of the local school system and focus on offering parents an alternative to the standard curriculum and instruction, without the tuition of private schools.

Tuition for Hill View comes out of the Haverhill school district's state aid. This year, enrollment in charter schools cost $2.8 million of the district's $80 million budget.

Silver Hill, as a Horace Mann school, has its own budget, which must be approved by the School Committee, though the school is run by a board of trustees. Its budget is about $3.2 million.

Innovation schools will be administered by the local school districts and follow state requirements but will be allowed to follow different lesson plans, staffing protocols and schedules — longer school days and shorter summer vacations are possible.

Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville said the state Legislature pushed for creation of innovation schools to help public schools compete with the state's academically strong charter schools and to quell growing dissatisfaction over charter funding by school committees and administrators.

"There's a lot of resistance to money leaving the districts as (they are) starved for money," he said. "If you don't want to see those external charters grow, embrace them internally. Let's beat them at their own game. We wanted to say to educators within the system, they can be every bit as innovative. They have to be bold enough to move away from the status quo."

The push by the Department of Education also follows orders by Gov. Deval Patrick to improve the academic performance of students in cities with high minority and immigrant populations.

Reville estimates about 2 to 3 percent of all Massachusetts students attend charter schools.

Before the transformation, Tilton's innovation plan must meet the approval of the state and the Haverhill School Committee. Two-thirds of the school's unionized teachers must also approve the changes.

Local charter leaders are already keeping an eye on how Tilton will develop.

"I think it's great the district is looking at schools with challenges and looking for ways to improve our public schools," said Janet Begin, a founder and former executive director of Hill View. "It's another option. They're trying to provide a variety of ways to educate."

Opened in 2005, Hill View was established to offer students in Haverhill a Montessori curriculum, which is not available in mainstream schools. The school has 296 students enrolled in kindergarten through grade 8.

Hill View uses a lottery system to determine admissions each year. It accepts out-of-district students but only after Haverhill students who apply.

Silver Hill has 577 students in kindergarten through grade 5. The school was established in 2008 in response to sagging standardized test scores and the possibility of state intervention. The school only accepts students who live within the district. Admission is based on a lottery, but the school does offer preference to families with students already attending the school.

Chris Jayne, principal of Silver Hill, said he's looking forward to seeing what sort of school Tilton will develop into over the next year and possibly exchanging successful ideas.

"We're always looking for ways to innovate in education," he said. "Sharing those efforts makes us stronger."