Charter Attracts 'Eclectic' Students

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By: Laura M. Reckford and Elsa H. Partan
Published: 06/29/12


This is the second in a two-part series about Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis and its impact on local school districts written by Laura M. Reckford, Elsa H. Partan and John R. Paradise

When asked for a word that best describes the students attending Sturgis Charter Public School, Eric Hieser, the school's executive director, chose the word "eclectic." The graduates lined up for the school's commencement earlier this month did appear to be a generally diverse group.

But some public school teachers and school committee members in the region have picked up on what may be a distinguishing feature of the students at this high-achieving school: their motivation.

The students know the curriculum will be difficult at this school, which is ranked number one in the state and number 15 in the country by US News & World Report, and they decide to challenge themselves.

Sturgis's popularity—it is growing to two campuses and doubling the number of students to 800—has contributed to the creation of aggressive advertising campaigns by Cape school districts and some criticism that Sturgis, by a form of self-selection, is grabbing some of their best students.

Mr. Hieser counters that saying Sturgis's rigor may not be for every student, but in the school's mission of "International Baccalaureate for All," it strives to help every student achieve his or her greatest potential.

Question of Diversity

Mashpee School Committee member David P. Bloomfield is critical of Sturgis, which, based on test scores, he said, appears to be selecting the top local students.

Also among his complaints is the fact that with each student who leaves Mashpee High School to attend Sturgis, $13,655 in state aid leaves, too. That figure is based on the per-pupil cost of educating a student in Mashpee.

As a way to soften the impact on school districts, the state reimburses both the "sending" school district and Sturgis 100 percent of the per-pupil cost in the first year the student leaves. For the following three years, the state gives the sending district a 25 percent reimbursement, even though it is no longer educating the student, and Sturgis gets 100 percent.

Is Sturgis Less Diverse?

Sturgis student data

"There is an amelioration in the first year, but in the second year they get [gypped] badly," said Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "The gloating and the smugness and the unwillingness of the charters to demonstrate any empathy at all has made people very angry. You have a recipe for explosive rage that many school leaders feel toward charter schools."

Mashpee, for example, will forgo about 9 percent of its state aid to Sturgis in the next fiscal year, a total of $432,431, according to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. Mashpee's total state aid is nearly $4.3 million, while the total school budget is $18.7 million.

The loss of state funding is not the only thing that angers Mr. Bloomfield. It is also the loss of some of the most talented students, he said. He accuses Sturgis of taking the best and brightest while leaving behind students with special needs, who historically have been expensive to educate.

Information from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shows the percentage of students in special education at Sturgis is 8.7 percent, lower than the average of 14.8 percent across the school districts of Barnstable, Bourne, Falmouth, Mashpee and Sandwich. Similarly, just 6.8 percent of students at Sturgis were from low-income households, compared to an average of 24.4 percent in those Cape school districts.

"You get a school where the kids are economically better off," Mr. Bloomfield said. "What that results in is a two-tier educational system. In the 1960s we showed that separate is not equal. We are going to fight that battle all over again."

Mr. Koocher of the state school committee association has been arguing for years that charter schools have been bad for the cause of an integrated society. "Across the state, charters have been a place of segregation by class and race," he said. "Most of them have been successful with their students, but what we don't know is whether those students would have been successful anyway, or whether the parents are just happy because their children didn't have to go to school with 'those other children.' "

Casting A Wide Net

Marc Kenen, the executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, acknowledged that school choice and charter schools have allowed students to group themselves. He said a state law that forces school districts to hand over their list of student addresses only recently passed, so this year was the first time charter schools were able to notify all parents of their options to put their child in a charter.

In the case of Sturgis, the students are selected using a random, public lottery system.

But a lottery is only truly fair "if everyone knows about it," Mr. Kenen said.

Mr. Hieser said he realizes that Sturgis may not be as diverse as it could be.

To fix this, Sturgis is now sending enrollment flyers to all 8th grade students across Cape Cod, a total of 3,000 students.

Flyers about Sturgis have also been posted at the Hyannis Youth & Community Center and at Housing Assistance Corporation properties in the region.

The school also strives to have a range of backgrounds on its board of trustees, of which only about half are parents of Sturgis students, Mr. Hieser said. For example, a new member of the board of trustees is a pastor at a Brazilian church in Hyannis. Mr. Hieser is hoping the pastor will spread the word to the Brazilian community about the school.

But the school's random drawing for admittance, as well as a charter school requirement that siblings have priority, can make it difficult to enhance diversity. Mr. Hieser said that 30 to 40 percent of the school population are siblings of current students. "That knocks out a lot of slots," he said.

What of the claims that Sturgis does not have its fair share of, or accommodates, special education students? Not so, Mr. Hieser said. He said the school has special education teachers on each campus dealing with speech, language, social and emotional issues, counseling and reading specialists.

He said the school's number of special education students actually increases over the four years at the school because of the high academic expectations. Students are added to the rolls of special education as their needs increase, he said.

Last year's senior class had 17 percent of students on Individual Education Plans, or IEPs. Most schools range from 10 to 13 percent, Mr. Hieser said. "Ours is pretty similar to Barnstable High School," he said.

The state education department has received one complaint over the past three years about non-implementation of an IEP at Sturgis, according to data from the state education department. Following an investigation, the school was found to be in compliance with the IEP and state law.

By comparison, the state has received nine complaints about the entire Sandwich School District over the past three years, according to the state. The school system was found to be out of compliance in four of the complaints.

The entire Barnstable School District was the subject of two complaints; in one instance the district was found out of compliance. Bourne, Falmouth, and Mashpee produced similar numbers to Barnstable.

Raffaele L. Kaddy of Hyannis, who recently retired from the Sturgis board of trustees after serving for nine years, used to be a special education administrator for the Barnstable Public Schools. She said Sturgis "accommodates special education students very successfully," in particular by showing them they can excel.

She said the student body at Sturgis includes "students with a wide spectrum of disabilities." She added, "I believe they have the same types of special education students that any traditional public school has."

The Power Of Choice

In describing the typical Sturgis student as "eclectic," Mr. Hieser noted that students develop a strong camaraderie and a great deal of respect for each other.

Students say there are fewer cliques at Sturgis, Mr. Hieser said, and the school fosters that by encouraging students to move back and forth in groups for various projects.

Class sizes are small, on average, numbering 16 students. If a class grows to 20, they split it into two sections, he said.

It is more than class size that sets Sturgis apart, according to Thomas C. Fink of Sagamore Beach, who is president of the school's parent association and a member of the Sturgis foundation.

The difference between Sturgis and the other scholls is that everyone chooses to be here: the teachers, the students...even the parents.

                 Thomas Fink                                                     President Sturgis Parent Assoc.

"The difference between Sturgis and the other schools is that everyone chooses to be here: the teachers, the students...even the parents," said Mr. Fink, who has already had two children graduate from the school, with one more set to graduate next year. "You choose to be here. You want to be here. You're invested."

"My oldest, Michael, was in 8th grade and he was the one who came to me and said he heard good things about the school," he said. "It wasn't me; it was him. We came and investigated, and we've been hooked ever since."

Mr. Fink was quick to praise the teachers at Sturgis, who come from all over the world. "Even though the salaries are not as high as other schools, you wouldn't believe the waiting list of teachers who want to work here. They want to do great things at a great school."

The teachers at Sturgis are not part of a union, Mr. Fink pointed out. "I think that makes a huge difference. If they do not perform, they're gone."

Lunches And Transportation

Within the budgets of local school districts, meals and transportation can be large line items. With rising food and energy prices, some districts have had to raise lunch prices or even charge students who take the bus.

Sturgis has been able to keep its lunch and bus programs simple.

The school does not have a cafeteria, but rather a kitchen with a refrigerator and microwave, where students can store and warm their homemade lunches. Students may also purchase lunches from nearby delis.

School districts across the country receive a reimbursement of between $2.77 and $2.94 from the US Department of Agriculture for each lunch provided for free to a student from a low-income family. Sturgis participates in that program, too. Most school districts keep their school lunch program from going bankrupt by buying low-cost food from the USDA. For example, it costs Mashpee $2.39 to produce a student lunch.

With no cafeteria of its own, Sturgis provides bag lunches for low-income students from Sea Street Market and Michael's Creative Baking at a cost of $5.50 per lunch. Because only 6.8 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, Sturgis is able to absorb the difference between the cost of the lunch and the amount of the federal reimbursement.

School buses transport students who live in Barnstable, but these buses do not pick up students outside of the town limits. Students may take the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority for $1.50 per ride or the Plymouth & Brockton buses for $3 to $4 per ride, depending on where the student gets on the bus.

Each year, between five and 15 students from low-income families ask for help with paying for transportation, Mr. Hieser said. Sturgis arranges car pools with faculty or other students or finds grant money from foundations and other donors to pay the cost of bus tickets. He does not recall the school ever giving a student cash for gas money. Asked whether this model would work with a low-income population of 33.4 percent, such as in the Barnstable School District, Mr. Hieser said it probably would not.

"It's all individually done," he said. "Because we're a small school, it can be done. If we were larger or had a different demographic, we would have to do it differently."

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