ADAMS, Mass. — Four days before Massachusetts voters decide whether to raise the commonwealth's cap on charter schools, the director of Berkshire County's lone charter school Friday made the case for continued support of the junior-senior high school.
Julia Bowen told a crowd at the school's annual Fall Breakfast that the politicking around Question 2 on Tuesday's ballot has included repetition of misconceptions about charter schools that do not apply to the Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School.
One thing that particularly stuck in her craw: the charge from Question 2 opponents that charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, enjoy the luxury of being able to pick and choose their students.
"One of the concerns that has been raised about charter schools is that we're selective in our population or that we 'kick students out,' " Bowen said. "I wanted to point out that we're actually doing the absolute opposite of that.
"We have an enrollment policy that is open to anybody. And we also provide services to allow every student to succeed."
Bowen backed up her claim with a slides that used data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to show that BArT's student population is as diverse or more diverse than its "sending" districts -- primarily North County school districts and Pittsfield.
BArT has a higher percentage of its student population in the "high needs" category as defined by DESE than do the North County public school districts. And, at just more than 50 percent of the BArT student population, the high needs cohort is comparable to the percentage in the the Pittsfield Public Schools district.
Meanwhile, BArT continues its practice of not graduating any senior who has not been accepted to at least one college.
To foster an interest in colleges, BArT has a practice of taking its sophomore class to New York City, where it visits campuses like Columbia and Bard College and its junior class to Boston to get an understanding of different types of colleges or universities they may want to consider.
"Importantly, we do this for all of our students," Bowen said. "It's not just for a select few who think they might want to go to college."
Another measure of BArT's success: its performance on standardized tests. Bowen told attendees at the breakfast that on the 2016 10th-grade MCAS tests, BArT scored higher than all but one county school on English and it scored higher than every other district in math and science.
"We feel especially proud that we have this incredibly diverse student body that is on par with our sending districts, which are more diverse than all the other districts in Berkshire County, and our students are outperforming them," Bowen said. "I feel like we're in good company. There's some really good work going on at schools across Berkshire County. And I would say … local districts don't need ‘saving' from charter schools. They are doing great work with students as well."
The Fall Breakfast featured a discussion about the school's program by two faculty members and moderated by two students.
The quartet talked about the interrelationship of arts and technology and how BArT is developing a "STEAM"-driven curriculum that incorporates the arts as the "A" in the better known science, technology, engineering and math framework.
"Educators and neurobiologists know that adolescence is the time of life … that is the last chance to develop a really powerful brain," BArT technology director J.P. Henkel said. "So what we try to do for our students is allow them to explore the development of that brain in as many different ways as possible because you never know when you're going to need that art portion of your brain or the music portion. Ideally, students will learn to merge together science and technology and engineering and art and math and music and drama.
"All of these things work together to make a successful adult."
Student Shanique Maloney of Pittsfield, who said she wants to go back to her native Grenada to study at the medical school, told the audience that BArT's drama program played a key role in helping prepare her for adulthood.
"When I started to get into theater, when I came to this country at 9, I was a very introverted person," Maloney said. "I didn't really like to talk to people. I still don't like to talk to people. … I'll talk to you.
"Then I started getting into drama, and when I came to BArT, the theater program helped me go into more depth with character development and accents and all this great stuff that theater is great for. And it's helped me to become a more confident person and allowed me to be up here talking with you right now."
Bowen, who announced last month that she will be stepping down as the only executive director in BArT's history, said that the school's success is testimony to, among other things, the support of local officials like North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright and Adams Town Administrator Tony Mazzucco, who both attended Friday's event.
She also had a request for all of the attendees.
"We can only achieve everything that I've just described if we have the support of local leaders like all of you -- and the time, advice and financial support of so many of you," she said. "My first ‘ask' is that you please make sure you spread the right facts about charter schools or send people to us to learn.
"While I personally hope the ballot question will pass on Tuesday, my bigger hope is that on Wednesday, we have strong relationships with our local schools and our local community and we are still well understood as a school. There has been a lot of misinformation and confusion. My hope is that some of you are now more educated to talk in the community about who and what we are."
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