Pelham - Windham News | June 6, 2014 - 11 Windham Academy: Charter School Plan Presented to Public
by Barbara O’Brien The possibility of a charter school being opened in the Town of Windham, a topic of conversation that has been bandied about since late last year, was fi nally presented in a public forum on May 22. Approximately 50 people, mostly Windham residents, attended the hour and a half long presentation. The proposed charter school is now known as “Windham Academy.” The meeting was conducted by members of the Educational Choices
Foundation, a non-profi t organization that was created last year. The Educational Choices Foundation was formed by the Windham Taxpayers Coalition, after a sub-committee consulted educational experts and came to the conclusion that a charter school would be benefi cial for a number of reasons. Local businessman Tom Murray, who was already in the process of developing plans for a charter school in Windham, also joined forces with the ECF.
Members of the ECF who attended last month’s public forum include Sean Donahue, Tom Murray, Chris Baker, Jim Fricchione and Michelle Levell. The board of trustees for the proposed Windham Academy would include nine members: a professional educational expert from the local community (one-year term), a non-parent member (one-year term), three charter school founders/major contributors (three-year terms), three parents (three-year terms) and one member of the Windham School Board (one-year term). According to Donahue, the ECF was established to prepare a charter
school application for approval. There are two ways in which a charter school can gain approval, either by the local school district or at the state level. Members of the ECF prefer going through the Windham School District, as doing so gives preference to Windham students. The ECF also serves as “an ambassador” or sponsor for the charter school and is tasked with selecting the initial board of trustees for Windham Academy. While establishing a charter school in Windham is not primarily for the purpose of easing the space crunch in the local school district, it is expected to be one of the by-products. The main purpose, according to members of the ECF, is to provide another option to parents. Windham has a great school district, Donahue commented, but the population of the southern New Hampshire town is still growing, creating overcrowding at many grade levels. Complicating the issue is the fact that the last two bond proposals for a new seventh and eighth grade school failed to garner suffi cient voter support. On top of that, the majority of school board members recently decided to abandon the portable building at Golden Brook School, due to ongoing mold and mildew problems. Donahue said the ECF does not want the idea of a charter school to be a competition with the school district. “We want this to be a partnership; a collaborative effort,” Donahue said. Quoting entrepreneur Henry Ford, Donahue said, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” “It’s crucial that we work together,” Chris Baker added. Baker said he believes Windham Academy would be “a fantastic addition
to the Town of Windham.” The mission is to provide a world-class, standard-setting primary school, based on a classical education that specializes in the foundations of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and history. The new school would provide real world laboratory experience and local, national and global understanding and applications. Each child would be allowed to move at his or her own pace until mastery of a concept is achieved. Windham Academy would encompass grades one through eight and would be intended for approximately 300 students. Baker said that Windham Academy is based on, but not a carbon
copy of the Academy for Science and Design; a charter school located in Nashua. According to Baker, the Academy for Science and Design is the number one middle school/high school in New Hampshire, based on test scores. The Academy for Science and Design has an enrollment of about 450 students and a waiting list of more than 200. About 30 percent of the enrolled students live in Nashua, the rest come from 37 other school districts. Scott Kukshtel, a science and technology teacher at Windham High School, endorsed the STEM approach to learning being proposed for Windham Academy. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. A STEM-based program deals with real world issues and solving problems. Students work in teams and a cross-curriculum framework is employed. Students exposed to STEM, which uses inquiry- based learning, become life-long learners, Kukshtel said. Kukshtel said the Windham School District has been looking into the STEM approach, but, unfortunately, has “bigger fi sh to fry.”
Chris George, an area business owner, whose company manufactures computer chips, also supported the charter school concept, saying, “School needs to be an incubator for a child’s curiosity.” “Windham Academy will be a way to expose kids to STEM at an early age,” George said, establishing interests that can lead to a future career. As for the timeline for Windham Academy, plans are to approach the Windham School Board and ask for its support in recommending the charter school to the New Hampshire Department of Education. If that support is forthcoming, the issue will then be presented to voters in March of 2015. The ECF would then apply for federal non-profi t status (501(c)(3), the following month. The foundation registered with the state this past November. If all goes as planned, Windham Academy would open its doors to students for the 2015-2016 school year. A discussion revolving around the possible location of a charter school was held at a school board meeting, several weeks earlier; a conversation in which a building being constructed by Tom Murray was mentioned. However, at the May 22 forum, Donahue said that no decision has been made on where Windham Academy could be located. Murray’s building is just one option, Donahue said. “We will investigate every available facility in town to see if it suits our needs,” Donahue explained. The building owned by Murray “is not our building,” he added. A $500,000 start-up grant might be available through the federal government. State law prohibits local taxpayers from being responsible for paying for a facility to house a charter school.
During the public input portion of the meeting,
several people wanted more information on how the charter school might impact taxpayers.
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Windham Academy students living in Windham would still have their education funded through the school district operating budget. According to statistics, presented at the meeting, if 300 students leave the Windham School District and attend Windham Academy, it would translate into approximately 10.5 percent of the total enrollment. However, as it reportedly costs less to operate a charter school, Windham Academy would only be encumbering about 6.5 percent of the school district’s annual operating budget. While it costs approximately $13,000 to educate a student enrolled in the Windham School District on an annual basis, the cost for that student to be educated at a charter school would be about $10,000 or 20 percent less. As for students coming from other school districts, the cost of their education would have to be paid for by the sending district. According to calculations by the ECF, the Windham School District would ultimately save money by having a portion of its students attend Windham Academy. The Trustees of Windham Academy would be responsible for raising any money above that which is provided by State Adequacy Funding, which is about $3,400 per student per year. Jim Reuben, who wrote the State Charter School Law in 1995, said there are currently 18 operational charter schools in New Hampshire; each very different from the others. “Charter schools are not meant for every kid,” Reuben said. “It must be a choice.” According to Reuben, the teachers who work in charter schools love their jobs. “They are willing to work for less pay, because of an environment that is less bureaucratic,” he said. Charter schools are non-unionized. “The parents, whose children attend charter schools, are incredibly happy. The students are incredibly happy,” Reuben said, encouraging Windham residents to support Windham Academy. “You’ll have a better town for it,” he said. One parent, who addressed Reuben’s remarks, commented that, most likely, parents and students who weren’t happy at a charter school had withdrawn and enrolled elsewhere. Another resident questioned where the trustees would fi nd faculty for
Windham Academy. Reuben responded that it was up to individual teachers whether or not they wanted to apply for a position. Many teachers who take positions at a charter school are retired from elsewhere, he said. Charter school teachers make considerably less money and are offered smaller benefi t packages than those provided by school districts, he explained. According to state law, up to half of the teachers at a charter school don’t have to be certifi ed. The Educational Choices Foundation plans to hold additional public forums, in the future, in an attempt to answer additional questions from residents, particularly in regard to budget issues and the proposed charter. “We never said a charter school is the saving grace” for all the school district’s dilemmas, Baker said. “We don’t have all the answers, yet,” Donahue explained. “This is not just about additional seats for students. That’s just an ancillary benefi t. A charter school is not meant to be a relief valve. Its main purpose is to provide educational choice.”
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