By Aimee ChiavaroliPosted Feb 18, 2020 at 3:01 AM
NEW BEDFORD — Alma del Mar Charter Schools is allocating more seats to its middle school grades, double that of what it has offered per grade in K-8, as it builds out its enrollment to full capacity.
Executive director Will Gardner, in an interview, said the additional weight toward the middle school grades is “primarily a response to parent demand.”
“They love the level of academic rigor that their children experience at Alma,” and the level of support offered to them from teachers, Gardner said about new sixth grade families.
In three years, when Alma del Mar is expected to reach capacity across its two schools, the new Frederick Douglass school will hold 50 students per grade in K-5 and 98 students per grade in 6-8, while the original Sarah D. Ottiwell school will continue with about 50 students per grade in K-8.
Gardner underscored what he feels his school does really well. In a late January news release, the school boasted that its middle schoolers are the highest performing middle schoolers in the city on the MCAS.
City district leaders have acknowledged that they’re slowly closing the gap yet have a long way to go when it comes to grades 3-8 MCAS scores in the district compared to the state, despite reported substantial progress toward meeting middle school improvement targets.
Christopher Cotter, vice chairman of the New Bedford School Committee, said he believes the middle schools are on the right track, although the progress is not as fast as school officials would like. Middle school is a very difficult time for many people, he said.
Committee member Bruce Oliveira said the district has to focus on its own middle schools, and he believes Superintendent Thomas Anderson is doing that, and making sure the district can provide those students the best education possible.
In the middle schools, the district has planned to launch after-school extra help sessions, decrease the chronic absenteeism rate, and launch a new math curriculum.
Cotter, who is not in favor of charter schools and voted against the proposed neighborhood charter school deal last year, argued that the cost to the district is the biggest issue and questioned why expanding the middle school grades was not initially part of the school’s proposal for more seats.
Gardner said the idea came about this past spring as the school was preparing to open its second campus and heard from families who were interested in their child attending Alma at the middle school level; students have traditionally entered the school through kindergarten.
Cotter also criticized the enrollment process. “We educate the whole student, we don’t discriminate on acceptance of students nor do we require students to leave for a lack of performance or adherence to rules,” he said.
In response, Gardner simply said “As with every other public school in the commonwealth, nor do we.”
The school uses a lottery system, like other charter schools in the state. In an email last week, Becca Kurie, director of development, said the school had already received about 600 applications and anticipated more at the last minute before its enrollment lottery Feb. 26. Nearly 100 new sixth graders and 100 new kindergarteners will join the school in August.
More seats for middle school grades gives Alma the opportunity to build on what it feels works well with its current middle school program, Gardner said, through responsibility, leadership and choice, to help prepare students for high school. For example, eighth graders tutor younger students several times a week and take on responsibility throughout the schools and middle schoolers get to choose which co-curricular classes and electives they take.
In order to graduate from Alma, students have to complete a significant body of work which they present, along with what they’ve learned about themselves as people, learners and leaders, to family and school faculty. Starting this year, at the Ottiwell school, K-8 students lead family conferences on what they had learned and their strengths and weaknesses.
Last year was the first year that new students were able to enroll in the school starting in 6th grade; it will be a primary entry point, along with kindergarten. That gives city students an alternative for middle school. In the past, there have been very few seats available in the upper grades, Gardner said.
Last year, the state granted Alma a 594-seat school instead of its original request of 1,188 seats and to open two more schools. The state education commissioner pulled the plug on a 450-seat neighborhood charter school that Alma had arranged with the city and the New Bedford district school system.
“We currently have no plans to apply for additional seats this year,” Gardner said.
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