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In short, the proposal is bad
Breakdown of the devil in the details of the Worcester Cultural Academy
Not that you asked or care, but the van situation is much more comfortable than I’m used to. There’s six of us in a 15-passenger. Everyone has their own bench and no one has a number backpacks piled on top of them as was the case for me with Mountain Man in 2015 as evidence by this gem…
Compared to that this is the life. Yes it is still a van full of dudes which will get increasingly stinky over the next couple weeks on a tour that may or may not make any money during the worst time of year to be touring. But I have my own god damn bench. Like I’m David Lee Roth or something.
Earlier this week you got a newsletter from me about a proposed charter school in Worcester, how it’s decidely no bueno, and how there’s a very important upcoming meeting—tomorrow at 4 p.m.!—to lodge public opposition.
I focused on the big picture view of charter schools as agent of a grand scheme to privatize the public trust that was launched under Reagan and quietly carried on by all the slightly different versions of Reagan we’ve had since Reagan (Quiet Reagan, Horny Reagan, Dumb Reagan, Cool Reagan, Catty Reagan, in that order). From my post:
This charter school, like all charter schools, is a venture built on a classically Orwellian premise: The stated goal, education, is entirely at odds with the practical function, profit extraction. While claiming to improve education, it extracts profit from pools of resources already dedicated to education. Its success as a business is predicated not on how good a job it does educating kids but on how much money it can take away from those kids.
Charter schools are cynical profit-seeking ventures for which the stated goal is at best an ancillary concern. First and foremost, they have a fiduciary responsibility to generate profit. They’re best thought of as a political project built over the past several decades. While this began and remains a staunchly right-wing project, but it’s increasingly enjoying “bipartisan support” as the Democratic Party continues to drift rightward in the GOP’s wake.
This political project is just one piece of an overarching, decades-long campaign to destroy the public democratic state by replacing government programs with private business ventures. While some public institutions fell rather quickly (higher education, for instance), public schools have been an especially stubborn holdout.
But in that post I generally steered clear of doing my own evaluating of the proposal itself. I’m not an expert on education and I’d never claim to be, so I’d much rather defer to the people who are.
So today I’m doing exactly that. I’m bringing on Cara Berg Powers, a bonafide expert in the education arena, for a delightfully sassy guess post which breaks down all the elements of this 300-page proposal which are built on thin premises, false promises or otherwise veer into sketchy territory.
For many Worcester Sucks readers, I’m sure Berg Powers needs no introduction. But I’d like to underscore that the critical analysis provided below is not coming from just some guy, as is the case when I write, but from a faculty member in the Education Department at Clark University and the Sociology Department at Worcester State University who holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Change and was previously executive director of Transformative Culture Project, a non-profit organization which provided cultural arts programming to public schools in Boston, Worcester and Holyoke. In other words, she knows what she’s talking about. And she’s a parent of a Worcester Public Schools student, so it matters to her in a big way.
Berg Powers post below is especially useful if you’re a Worcester community member, student, teacher or parent who’s motivated to speak out against this charter proposal tomorrow afternoon. There is plenty of fodder within which could and should be repeated to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials in attendance. So before handing it off, I’ll again stress that the more people who show up tomorrow the better!!
The hearing takes place at 4 p.m. (Friday, Dec. 9) in the Herbert Auditorium at Quinsigamond Community College. Here’s the campus map. It’s in the Surprenant Building (building #3 on the map).
You can also email comments to DESE via the email firstname.lastname@example.org !! In person is better, but anything helps.
And here’s that holiday subscription deal if you would like to support this platform and my ability to pay great contributors like Berg Powers :-)
We can’t afford to let them try
By Cara Berg Powers
For those of us fighting for more equitable communities and schools, 2022 could be 1992—we’ve got invented “culture wars,” a resurgence in a need for clinic escorts, a bizarre fear of drag queens, a reactive fear of talking about race at all—so it shouldn’t surprise me at all that we’re talking about Charter Schools again. I fear that we’re far enough away from the “No on 2” fight of 2016 that many people may not be aware of the existential threat that charter schools pose to the stability and opportunity in our public schools. The fact is that good or bad intentions aside, as a structure, charter schools by design siphon money out of public schools. With a needed infusion from the hard-fought Student Opportunity Act and the promise of more potential funds from the Fair Share Amendment, and with a new superintendent in place, we finally have the opportunity to make some of the changes we know our kids deserve. A new charter school application with specious local connections threatens some of this potential.
If you are looking to get a flavor of the proposal for the Worcester Cultural Academy, you need only read the opening paragraph. (Read the whole thing here at your own risk.)
Notably, the school has no stated connection to this artist or this piece of art except that it likes it. This seems to be about the same relationship it has to cultural institutions it wants to “connect” with students. One might wonder how the school can connect students to organizations that itself it has no connection to. And that would be only the beginning of questions you had after reading the 300-plus page application. The paragraph is exemplar also in its ability to say nothing in several sentences while also making a combination of obvious but unaddressed and specious and unprovable claims. In short, the proposal is bad. What follows is basically my stream of consciousness reactions while I read it.
The entire proposal reads like a grant I wrote the night before it was due, furiously googling to provide evidence as needed, reusing the same vapid phrases and copy and pasting passages from potential partner organization’s materials without actually getting any letters of commitment and hoping I’ll have time to lock it down if they ask for more info. Every question of how it would actually work is to be determined later. Purchase a bus and hire a full time bus driver! How? Well, we’ll fundraise if we’re approved. Hire more diverse teachers! Our other school is over 95% white teachers? Well, we’ll recruit more teachers of color. That’s what the ENTIRE EDUCATIONAL FIELD IS TRYING TO DO RIGHT NOW? Nah, we’ll figure it out.
“During the planning period, we will further map out the implementation of the K-8 ELA curriculum, K-5 and 6-8 Math, K-8 Science, K-8 Social Studies, K-8 Learning Expeditions/Field Studies as well as the integrated arts with support from EL Education’s School Designer and colleagues from the local Expedition Institutions.” It’s a good thing that they will just figure out ALL OF THE LEARNING STUFF later because it’s clear from the misuse of popular education terms, casual incorrect assumptions about how learning works, and using the word “culture” in like 18 different ways that educators were not centered in the drafting of this plan.
Students begin their day in Crew. (P. 40) What is Crew? “We are Crew” is the motto of partner organization EL Education, which provides curriculum and training to 116 schools across the country. “In middle school, Crew is not homeroom. By contrast, (author’s note: contrast to what, exactly?) Crew sizes are small (ideally 10-15 students) and prepare students for success during and after high school. All students are assessed on their academic and Habits of Character (non-academic) participation in Crew. Crew aligns with the school’s educational philosophy and mission by providing a supportive and nurturing school environment. Each student is known well by at least one adult at WCACPS.”
Still unclear on what Crew is? “In the EL Education model, the tradition of Crew is both a culture and a structure. The term “crew” comes from educator Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound. Hahn’s quote “We are crew, not passengers, strengthened by acts of consequential service to others” inspired the EL Education motto, “We are crew.” The culture of crew impels all members of a school community to work together as a team, to pitch in, to help others.” Honestly, the venture capital speak in all of this is so thick it hurts. I wanted to make a bingo card with words like “grit,” “resilience,” “citizenship,” and other best sellers from people who have never taken an introductory course on education, or, I guess, think they are the only ones who have.
The cornerstone of the school seems to be this idea of “Learning Expeditions” and “Expedition Institutions,” the practical application of both which is surprisingly sparse given the centrality of the concept in the case for the school. As someone who had the good fortune to go to a project-based school from 4-10 grade or so, before it got eaten by the MCAS, I would love to hear about what the lesson plans and trajectory of a “Learning Expedition” look like. Of the 61 uses of the phrase “Learning Expedition” in the document, almost every instance is just a copy paste of the same sentence, that learning expeditions will happen and be project-based, and in partnership. Here’s the closest we get to specifics:
“An example of how we want our partnership to work is seen in the preplanning we have done with the EcoTarium. In our conversations with this Expedition Institution, we were able to identify a preliminary curriculum map for Learning Expeditions and Field Studies (as seen in Attachment M). Our current thinking for Year 1 is that the EcoTarium would bring all programs on site (except site-dependent ones like pond ecosystems and insects) to the school. Then, students would visit the EcoTarium for a curated planetarium show on the topic (i.e. ecology) and participate in additional hands-on activities/research/interview with experts.”
So, if you are thinking that when you go to the document’s Attachment M section, you would get some evidence that planning and discussion and agreements had been made with the Ecotarium, as this is the section where such a commitment is promised to be. I hate to tell you, you will not. You will get a series of spreadsheets of links to prepackaged curricula (that are objectively NOT project-based. I’m sorry, words mean things) from EL Education and AmplifyScience, and then a spreadsheet of what can only be described as field trip ideas loosely connected to lesson ideas with partner institutions. Like: “Pond Ecosystems (Early Fall/Spring only) - Visit the pond and collect water samples, then examine them under a microscope to explore this near-invisible ecosystem up close.”
And if you’re thinking that this sample from the grid of “Learning Expeditions” reads like a brochure from the museum partner, I can only assume that’s exactly what it is. I especially like the touch of leaving in the time of year this offering is available, definitely not a custom offering. There are similar passages linking exhibits at the Worcester Art Museum (which has wonderful curriculum guides for teachers available on their website, and a wide array of school partnership opportunities open to all schools), and then a bunch of links to exhibits from the Worcester History Museum and some ways that field trips can be connected to specific lessons from EL’s other pre-packaged lessons. My favorite from that column though is what appears to be an accidental copy/paste that belongs in another section:
I assume it’s an errant copy/paste because I can’t imagine why a study of the impact of teacher professional development programming provided by EL Education would be in the “other institutions” curriculum section. It’s the kind of error that shows the overall sloppiness of the proposal and its claims. It’s also, again, the most robust information in the whole proposal about the nature and expectations of the alleged “Expedition Institutions.” When you apply for a grant to partner with cultural organizations through, say, the Worcester Arts Council, you can’t just write up an idea, you have to acquire letters of commitment in advance to show that you’ve actually secured these partners. And that’s for grants under $10,000. We’re talking about millions coming out of our public schools, and the writers of this proposal so lack a basic respect for the community they claim to represent they can’t even do the bare minimum to show an understanding of the cultural landscape. If they did, they wouldn’t be centering their supposed cultural responsiveness only in the large institutions in the city that are having the same exact struggles as our schools to retain and attract diverse audiences. They’d also be working with Raices dance studio and Guardians of Tradition, with organizations like Arts Worcester and Creative Hub and the little collectives of artists and musicians that are punching way above their weight. And if you were authentically engaged with culture in Worcester, you definitely wouldn’t say something like:
“OSV and Worcster(sic)-based Expedition Institutions will provide us (emphasis mine) with professional artists, musicians, and actors to join our classrooms as experts. Like Learning Expeditions and field studies, our integrated arts will have ties to local cultural institutions such as:
● Visual Arts (Worcester Art Museum)
● Music/Drama (Hanover, Old Sturbridge Village)
● Science Enrichment (EcoTarium, Old Sturbridge Village, Hanover)
● Wellness (EcoTarium, Worcester Art Museum, Old Sturbridge Village, Hanover)
● World Languages (EcoTarium, Worcester Art Museum, Old Sturbridge Village, Hanover)”
Again, how will this work? What will partners get out of this? How will they staff it? Fund it? Magic! Maybe it’s the $100,000 line item for Expeditions, but who can say, there’s no line items within it. And it feels very important to emphasize that the kind of field trips and curriculum integrations being talked about are already offered by these institutions to ANYONE who can afford the time and money to do so. So, maybe we should give all of our schools $100,000 for field trips if this is such a groundbreaking model.
At this point it feels important to dive into the complete lack of preparedness that this management group has to meet the needs of students it expects to be about a third of its population.
“We expect Spanish will be offered as a world language beginning in sixth grade. Consistent with EL Education Core Practices, we WCACPS must prepare students for global citizenship in an increasingly complicated and interconnected world. We believe that communication is a key tool and a vital global skill that deepens understanding of other cultures and countries, especially with the demographic information of our anticipated student population (58.9% first language not English, 28.3% ELL). As much as possible, learning language connects students with communities and cultural and artistic opportunities, and empowers them to contribute to the school, community, and world.”
The only other charter school they manage, the Old Sturbridge Academy, has 3.4% English Language Learners. What evidence do we have that they are in any way equipped to support a school population that is almost ⅓ ELL? Especially with this kind of logic. There’s no connection between offering a world language and recognition that many students already speak it. No indication of how students’ expertise in their home language will be built on. No references to culturally and linguistically sustaining practices.
“Our goal is to make the curriculum accessible and appropriate for all students at all levels which includes students with diverse learning styles such as English language learners, students with disabilities, students who enter below grade level, students identified at risk, and advanced students who perform significantly above grade level.”
None of the things listed here are “diverse learning styles.” They are learning needs and/or perceived performance characteristics of students. And the list of what they’ll do to support learners is the most basic best practices of any school, that, yes, schools struggle to meet without the actual budget and expertise to attend to all of these things effectively:
“The strategies the school will implement to ensure academic success for all students including students struggling to meet performance standards will be:
● common planning time for teachers (general education, special education, and ELL teachers)
● disaggregation of data to focus on subgroups (ELL, Students with Disabilities, low income, high needs)
● provide students with both academic and social emotional tiered interventions
● clear standards-based learning targets and lesson/unit/project/course objectives
● opportunities for project-based learning with peers
● consistent, kind, specific, and helpful feedback
● safe and predictable classroom routines”
“As proven by EL Education’s national network of schools, the proposed curriculum and instruction will serve the diverse needs of individual students and will result in high academic achievement and the attainment of knowledge, skills, and experiences that ensures college and career readiness for WCACPS’s anticipated student population.”
PROVEN. That’s a tall order. OSV is a partner school, yes? So OSV students perform worse in Math and English MCAS than their peers in the Sturbridge Public Schools and exactly the same in Science.
“WCACPS will hire 3 licensed ELL teachers in Year 1 with one such teacher also acting as Coordinator (stipend for additional responsibility) to support ELLs and develop the curriculum. For the Teacher/Coordinator, we anticipate that 25% of their time will be coordinating services and developing the curriculum and 75% of their time teaching students. The other ELL teachers will spend 100% of their time dedicated to teaching. We anticipate a range of students in Year 1 from 57-118 who are First Language Not English and English language learners (ELs) who will need services based on expected demographics.”
So just to be clear, they are planning to serve almost a third of their whole school with only three teachers, one of them only teaching 75% of their time, spread amongst all of the school’s classrooms. “Teachers provide supplemental materials so that ELLs can access content, such as visual cues, materials written in the student’s home language, and culturally relevant materials.” Oh, that should do it. In contract, Chandler Magnet School has about 50% of their 400 students that are English Language Learners and 21 ELL teachers.
“OSACPS received an unconditional renewal in 2021 and met the needs of students with disabilities and ELL students with proficiency. The special education and ELL programs at WCACPS will be strongly mirrored after the successful programs at OSACPS.” It is worth noting that students with disabilities have a 15% out of school suspension rate, about twice as much as the school overall, which is already high, at 8%. Worcester’s, for reference, is 4.4 overall, and 7.4 for students with disabilities, part of disparities that the community has, justifiably, found concerning.
From the conversations I have had with supporters of this application, they are trotting out the same old rationale for siphoning these funds off of our schools that we’ve heard for decades: Arguments along the lines of “parents in our community need additional options. The schools are failing too many of our kids, and we can’t wait for a whole system turnaround. Kids who don’t get high test scores deserve specialized programming too, things like museum visits and hands on learning and small class sizes.”
Even if this was plausible—that this management group, who has no experience effectively serving the population they claim needs their services, is going to turn the educational outcomes of the students of this school completely around—it’s important to note the cost. We’re talking about a total student enrollment of 360, and that’s in year five of the proposed plan, at a cost of millions of lost revenue for the Worcester Public Schools, which serve almost 24,000 students. And this isn’t just because the money follows the students, which it does, and because the state never fully reimburses charter losses, which it doesn’t. It’s also because the Worcester Public Schools will be responsible for the costs of busing all of the 360 students from around the city to and from this new school, while still rebuilding a post-pandemic bus driving force as it is. But let’s just say we’re all cool with losing millions to create a purportedly better option for a very small number of kids—to effectively ration opportunity. Is there even an opportunity to ration? According to their own stats, no. In fact, Public School Review ranks the OSV Charter in the bottom half of schools in the state. And that’s, again, BEFORE serving the profile of students they themselves say need additional supports.
Ok, so as anyone who has ever taken any kind of workshop with School Committee member Tracy Novick knows, a budget is a moral document. It’s also a plan. So how does this budget measure up? The budget is an exercise in make believe. Completely disconnected from the proposal itself. Multiple times in the proposal the need to fundraising for special projects is cited, yet the line for anticipated private foundation dollars goes down as the years progress. Meanwhile, the school siphons more dollars from the Worcester Public Schools, including a growing annual chunk of change (ranging from about $200,000 in the first year to over $400,000 by year 5) directly to Old Sturbridge Village for “management” of the school. Which begs the question, how is one man supposed to feasibly be the Executive Director of a Museum and TWO Charter Schools? What is Worcester tangibly getting from Old Sturbridge Village to justify this magic transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars from our classrooms into their coffers?
It’s also just comically BAD estimates when put up against their current school.
Take, for example, the $4000-9,000 (unclear as they’ve put it in different places) that they’ve estimated in their application to pay for recruitment/dissemination. In actuality, OSV Charter reported almost $30,000 last school year for this expense. In Sturbridge. Without the promise of translation into multiple languages and outreach to a number of community organizations. They have $3,000 in travel expenses for board and admin, with no such prediction in their application. They anticipate spending about $15,000 a year for professional development, which is exhaustively described in the application as about 14 calendar days, including 10 days before school begins. And which OSV spent about $95,000 on last year.
Budgets always have some degree of estimation because they are a plan. This level of poor planning is alarming, when there is such a clear template to draw from. It’s like if you look at your actual spending and it’s about $350 a month for groceries, and when you’re planning your budget for next month you just guess that maybe instead you could spend about $200. And not make any changes to your meals.
The most absurd thing to me though is the blanket line item for anything involved with THE CORE PREMISE OF THE SCHOOL- Learning Expeditions. $100,000 for Learning Expeditions for the first year, and increments of $25,000 more as the school grows. What is it? Is it enough? Too much? Is it payments to cultural institutions (THAT ARE ACCOUNTED FOR NO WHERE IN THE BUDGET)? Is it costs of travel? Is it coordination? Supplies? WHO KNOWS? Anyone who writes or reviews grants knows that your budget needs to explain how you’re going to do the things you say you’re going to do in the grant narrative. This fails so epically that it’s insulting.
The core premise of this school is that students should learn in culture, and I DEEPLY agree. I ran an organization that brought community artists into public schools for over a decade. I love that I am raising my daughter in a community FULL of cultural organizations and institutions that also deeply believe this and am proud to volunteer my time as a Board member of one of them: Creative Hub Worcester. Worcester students already have so many opportunities to learn in and with cultural organizations, and DO go on field trips to the Ecotarium, Hanover Theatre, Worcester Art Museum, and more. I know. I have chaperoned some of them. Heck, to this day my own 4th grade field trip to see the Warhol/Disney/Haring exhibit at WAM is seared in my brain as a formative moment. I imagine if every school in our city had $100,000 budget for field trips, we could all do a lot more expedition learning. We don’t need a hedge fund hobbyist who sees the state education budget as a piggy bank to pad his organization’s budget to tell us that. Could we do more to ensure every kid gets the opportunity to do project-based learning and immerse themselves in the institutional AND organic cultural community of Worcester? Absolutely. Is a school for 300 kids going to do that? No. In fact, it’s not even clear they can do it for those 300 kids, and at a cost of over 7 million from our school budget when we’re at a pivotal moment to rebuild community trust, input, and vision together the kind of schools we want ALL OF OUR KIDS to have, we can’t afford to let them try.
Bill again. Please excuse any typos as I filed this from a van on hotspot. Anyway thanks for reading!
On that note, I’m gunna close this post with a little bit of sap. BWB’s main songwriter/singer Scott Ayotte has been one of my best buds since middle school. He’s two bench rows behind me right now watching TikTok videos and I sorta hope he never sees this. But he’s responsible for one of the most formative moments of my development as an artist. We were in his cramped childhood bedroom in the attic of his childhood house on the base of Silver Hill Road in Milford. We were like 15 or something and he showed me a demo version of The Camera Turns, a song which ended up being the epic closer of BWB’s first record, Say Hello. Listening to that demo version coming out of the crappy speakers of the old clunky iMac he and his brother shared was a lightning bolt to the brain. It felt impossible that something so big and lush and resonant could come out of the brain and voice and fingers of my friend. It left me jealous, self depreciating and, frankly, driven. If he can write something that big, I can write something that big. And here I am, still trying.
Then as now, Scott’s the type of friend who constantly pushes me to take my craft more seriously just by nature of the way he approaches his.
Ok bye bye! We have a day off next Tuesday, and I have another exciting guest piece in the can, so expect to hear from me then!