State Study Panel Hands High Marks to Charter School

By JAMES KINSELLA
Gazette Senior Writer

A state education inspection team has given a mostly glowing evaluation of the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School in West Tisbury.

The team's 42-page report, based on a visit to the school from Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 last year, will be among the information considered by the state board of education at its Feb. 28 meeting in Malden on whether to renew the school's charter for the next five years.

The team found that the school outperformed the state on most grade levels and subjects covered by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests; that the school had improved in academically weak areas since its last charter renewal; and that the school is notable for its high faculty retention rate and collegial environment.

The school opened in 1996, after the Vineyard was one of seven communities in the commonwealth selected from three dozen applicants to launch a charter school under the provisions of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act. The first year 60 students enrolled, ages 10 to 15. Today the school, located at the edge of the North Tisbury business district on State Road in West Tisbury, enrolls 159 students from kindergarten through grade 12 from throughout the Vineyard. The school applied last August to renew its charter for another five years.

The charter school has 18 classroom teachers, nine teaching assistants and other workers who provide direct services to students. The school's student-teacher ratio is 8.4 to 1.

The state evaluation team conducted 20 class observations and interviewed 30 staff members, either individually or in focus groups. The team also did focus group interviews with parents, students, school leaders and the board of trustees.

"We were pleased with the report," school principal Robert Moore said yesterday. "It's always a healthy experience to have outside people come in to take a look at our work: the students' work, the teachers' work, and the work of the administration."

State education commissioner David Driscoll will provide the state board with a package of information on the school including the inspection report and a financial audit. Mr. Driscoll is slated to recommend to the board whether to renew the charter.

Mr. Moore said he plans to attend the Feb. 28 state board meeting with Sam Berlow, president of the school board of trustees.

The team, he said, evaluates whether the school is viable academically and financially, whether the school is sticking to its mission statement, and whether the school is disseminating its work to the outside world.

The report made note of the strong academic performance at the school, which outpaced the state on most grade levels in English language arts, math, science, technology and engineering.

"The team found that the school made improvement in weak areas since the time of the last charter renewal, generally outperformed the state, and outperformed other Island schools on several MCAS tests," the report states.

The team also found that the focus of the academic program is to cultivate the intellectual and social growth of each student. Further, the team found that the school "rigorously monitors the performance of all students in order to modify instruction and to provide additional instructional support." Support staffers help the school provide individualized instruction.

Moreover, the report said teachers at the school help develop self-directed learners through methods that stimulate excitement and curiosity in students.

The team also found that the school's mission to create a setting that will cultivate lifelong learners in a multi-age, project-oriented setting is backed by its policies and overall program, and that the entire school community supports that mission.

The team said the school has a high faculty retention rate of 90 per cent and a collegial environment. That has allowed the school to orient and coach teachers, although a number of formal structures are not in place to guide teachers to meet the school's standards.

Among concerns noted by the inspection team is the lack of documentation on the school's internally developed curriculum. "The school offered no explanation why the school did not provide requirements regarding the organization and recording of curriculum units so they could easily used and adapted by another teacher," the report stated.

As for financial issues facing the charter school, school leaders expressed concern about possible reductions in state aid during changes in the funding formula, and a cap that limits school district contributions to the charter school to nine per cent of its per-pupil expenditures. The school reports the cap keeps out 10 to 12 students per year, which costs the school $150,000 annually.