By Will Garner and Jan Baptist
Seven years ago, we made a promise to families in New Bedford that we’d create a school that would put their children on the path to college. We’ve created that school, and the success of our young scholars after just a short time is remarkable. In many grades, Alma scholars outperform their peers in nearby suburban districts. Children who came to us knowing little English now outperform their peers statewide in both English and math. Alma scholars with disabilities passed the English MCAS last year at a nearly 50 percent higher rate than their peers statewide.
We’ve worked hard to successfully close the achievement gap that historically has denied New Bedford youth the opportunities they deserve.
Today, we’re making another promise. Give us the opportunity and in five years we will triple our impact. This week, we submitted an application to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to expand our enrollment by more than 1,000 scholars across two additional campuses. Our schools will graduate a cohort of rising freshman who will be prepared to make a stronger New Bedford High School and a much brighter future for the whole city.
We appreciate the formidable challenge that the mayor and New Bedford Public Schools have ahead of them. Too many people expect them to turn around an entire district at once. Five years ago New Bedford High was ranked by DESE as performing among the bottom 4 percent of all high schools in the state. Its most recent ranking put it in the bottom 2 percent. Given that its freshman class is made of rising 8th graders who passed the MCAS at rates 20 percent below the state average, however, one cannot lay blame at the feet of the high school alone. New Bedford needs a strong pipeline of high performing K-8 schools that will provide its public high schools with well-prepared incoming freshmen and lay the educational foundation for this city for years to come.
Great K-8 schools like Alma and strong elementary schools like Carney Academy need to be replicated throughout the city to ensure more children get a fair shot at success from the start.
Right now, there just aren’t enough high-quality schools in the city to meet that goal. Families do not care about the governance model of their public school, whether it be a traditional district school, a charter public school, or the regional vocational technical school. They just want it to be a good school. Creating these good schools is urgent work. With this growth effort, Alma is answering the call of families who for too long have been told to wait.
It’s only fair that state education funding follows the student to whichever public school their parents choose for them. It’s also understandable that local political leaders want to keep all students, along with their per-pupil funding, in the district. Resources are scarce, especially in Gateway Cities like New Bedford. Leaders have to make tough decisions all the time about how to allocate those resources. As a public school, we experience the realities of tight education dollars alongside our colleagues in traditional districts. That’s why in collaboration with members of the New Bedford School Committee we’ve supported efforts to increase state education spending for all public schools, including full funding for the charter school reimbursement fund, which provides six years of additional funding to districts whose parents choose to send their children to charter public schools. In some years, the Legislature has not fully funded this program. Alma is committed to the fight for adequate funding for public schools for the long term. In the meantime, however, we must all use the resources we have to create the schools our families deserve.
Anyone with real experience in urban education learns to approach this work with humility. We know that it will take more than just our own efforts to lift up education in New Bedford. That’s why we celebrate the success of like-minded school leaders, teachers and champions of education throughout the city. Our teachers are inspired when they collaborate with district peers and we always look forward to running open professional development sessions when we welcome area educators for training, food and camaraderie. We look forward to the day when Alma is one among many options in a vibrant portfolio of successful schools that New Bedford that parents have to choose from.
August means the start of school at Alma. All of our teachers are in the building this week preparing for our first day of the school year on the 20th. Like all talented and dedicated public school teachers, each of them is hard at work planning a year that will open new doors for their children and shape the habits and character of each scholar in addition to growing their knowledge of the world. Each name on each desk represents a sacred promise that we’ve made to a family. It’s a promise that we’ve delivered on up to now, and one that we’ll keep in the future.
Will Gardner is the executive director and founder of Alma del Mar and Jan Baptist is the chair of the Alma del Mar Board of Trustees.