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The Having of Wonderful Ideas
Cara Berg Powers on the newly recommended charter school proposal
Phew what a week this has been, huh? Not good!
For me Wednesday was the worst day because I spent the morning at a homeless camp eviction, seeing firsthand how those evictions go down—how routine they are and how mundane and unfair and I got to soak up all the inherent cruelty and lack of regard and claims to the contrary that go into them. And then I get home to a call from Cara Berg Powers, our main contributor today, about how the state’s commissioner of education thinks the charter school proposal by the folks at Old Sturbridge Village is actually not a flagrant cash grab but a fine and decent idea and he gave it the green light. The vote on it doesn’t come until next Tuesday so there’s still a chance this won’t happen but it’s not necessarily looking good.
So that was a one-two punch. “Nothing’s gunna change about the cruelty we inflict on the unhoused because no one who matters cares” was the first punch and the second punch was “oh yeah there’s actually nothing we can realistically do about a butter-churning museum siphoning money off our public schools because here in true blue Massachusetts we just love Republican governors and if there’s one thing Republicans are good at it’s getting their people into the appointed positions which quietly hold the most power with the least accountability and whaddyaknow Charlie Baker did that with DESE.”
Feeling a tad overwhelmed I asked Cara if she’d write something up on Punch #2 while I continue to collect my thoughts and observations on Punch #1, which I’m shooting to publish on Sunday.
But those weren’t the only punches this week!
My hypothesis that the chairwoman of the public safety committee is nothing but a puppet of the police unions was confirmed! Remember when Kate Toomey was on camera texting through Sarai Rivera’s prayer for Black lives? She was texting Rick Cipro, head of the patrolman’s union, and the nature of the text messages suggests she does whatever he wants her to. Neal McNamara at the Patch dug up the texts. Great stuff.
Toomey, who works for the Worcester County Sheriff's Office, confirmed Cipro asked her to “hold” — a relatively common parliamentary maneuver in Worcester — four items on the Jan. 31 agenda related to the police department, including an update on body cameras and a department racial equity audit. The two messages were in reference to the holds.
And before that the police department gleefully announced that the body cameras are happening and everyone celebrated it as this magnificent step toward transparency and accountability but whether or not we’re going to have to pay the cops more money to wear these cameras remains an open question. “Contract negotiations are ongoing,” a spokesperson for the city told me. So we’ll just have to wait and see on that! The smart money is on the cops getting what they want, of course. And lest we forget the plain clothes units which tend to be the subject of a good percentage of the lawsuits filed against the police department are mostly exempt from wearing them as I detailed a few weeks ago.
The most recent punch comes in the form of a new candidate for at-large city council who’s something of a micro celebrity around here and also holds deeply problematic beliefs! Local boxer Jose A. Rivera is “in the ring” as it were, promising an “independent and moderate” candidacy. He’s also an anti-vaxxer and a “traditional family values” guy and I’m sure more things yet to emerge and his campaign is being chaired by none other than Walter Bird Jr., my old editor at Worcester Magazine. Woof.
But anyway the rest of the post comes courtesy of Cara Berg Powers. Please consider a paid subscription so I can keep paying contributors like Cara and keep this whole thing going and keep taking the punches and offering my reflections on the impact area and velocity of those punches.
The Having of Wonderful Ideas
By Cara Berg Powers
In December, Bill allowed me to share my reflections on an objectively bad proposal for a new charter school in Worcester, to be run by Old Sturbridge Village (also known by some of my high school students as “the place with the cows?”). My ragey intro is a good flavor of just how bad their 300 page proposal was:
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.
The title here—the “having of wonderful ideas”—is drawn from one of the “principles” of EL Education, and it’s as nonsensical as the rest of the proposal. As Bill and I both noted in December, despite enormous and united public pushback to this proposal due to the myriad ways it would harm the Worcester Public Schools and the kids unfortunate enough to be left in the care of the proposed charter, the decision to recommend comes only from the state Commissioner of Education, Jeff Riley.
Riley was appointed by Charlie Baker and is completely dedicated to the project of privatizing public schools. As expected, we found out Wednesday that Riley has indeed recommended that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approve the application for Old Sturbridge Village (the place with the cows) to run the “Worcester Cultural Academy Public Charter School.” The good news is, at the end of the day (specifically Tuesday!) it is the decision of The Board. Not Riley. So you can still reach out to them and express your concerns about the proposal and the harm it will cause.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will meet to vote on the proposal next Tuesday. The meeting takes place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. It will also meet on Monday to go over the proposal, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Both meetings will be live streamed. Here are the details.
You can find all of the information about the proposal, as presented by Riley, here.
You can find the contact information for all of the Board of Ed members here.
(And the Worcester School Committee has also called a special meeting for 4:15 p.m. Monday to call for an investigation of the financials of the proposal, FYI)
Form letters are not useful here, so I am not going to give you one. What I would recommend is that you share your own perspective about the problems with this charter proposal and the impact it will predictably have. And for that, I can give you some evidence.
OSV Is Not Qualified or Prepared to Serve Our Kids
Riley, in his letter, recommends that the Board approve this charter, saying, “The application for the proposed WCACPS is strong and presents a compelling and coherent vision for a student-centered educational option for Worcester families, with the capacity to deliver the proposed educational program.”
If you read this newsletter, you know that is a comically bad take, but let’s dig in a little bit.
Compelling? This is probably the closest you could get to true. The overall idea of a school with more trips to cultural institutions and project-based learning sounds good to most of us. But that’s where this all breaks down, because the next word is “coherent” and there’s no indication anywhere in the 300 page application that this group can at all deliver on that idea. They genuinely haven’t fleshed out a “coherent” vision. They use “culture” to mean everything from diversity (i.e. cultural diversity) to art (like arts and culture), because it sounds good, but it doesn’t mean anything in this context, because they use it to mean everything. They don’t explain how they’ll fund the work, how they’ll hire for the work, how they’ll staff the work. Is it student centered? I’m not even sure they know what that means, since they call English Language Learners a “diverse learning style.”
And here’s where the rubber really meets the road. We can look to the OSV Charter to see how likely this school is to actually serve the kids it claims it will. They draw from the Southbridge Public Schools but serve well below their percentage of students of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. Southbridge schools are 65% Latinx and OSV is 72% white, only 20% Latinx. There are so few English Language Learners currently served (despite Southbridge ELL students making up 18% of the District), that they can’t report any of their accountability data (like test scores) for those students. They say they’ll reach kids by basically emailing organizations that are already serving them to share information. So their innovative strategy is the same thing every intern at every organization ever has done to try to increase turnout? Truly innovative.
Lastly, it’s very clear that they have neither the capacity nor the expertise to deliver on their half-baked ideas. They are hinging most of their plan on field trips to cultural institutions but have not done as much as a field scan for what that kind of travel and coordination and payments to partnering institutions would cost. It’s telling that the “letter of support” counted in the tally of supporters is an email forwarded by Jim Donahue, the person proposing this whole thing, from the EcoTarium. It basically says “call me if you are actually a charter school, because we work with all schools, but until then I can’t really meet with you.” AND HE SENT IT ON PURPOSE. He counted that as “support.” I am including it here in full, because you’d be right to assume I’m kidding or exaggerating. It’s that ridiculous. But it’s just a real thing that happened.
I don’t know what’s more embarrassing: that Donahue thinks this is worth sending, that Riley thinks it counts as a letter of support, or that the Board might fall for this whole grift and approve this on Tuesday.
OSV Is Targeting Kids with Higher Needs for Larger Checks
Here’s the way the proposal tells the origin story of the first OSV Charter school, and their unlikely passion for starting such schools: “Early in his tenure as President and CEO of OSV, Jim Donahue began hearing from the community that there was a need for a high-quality alternative to the traditional public school – especially for historically underserved students and for children who learn differently.” He just started hearing this from the community. So weird that he had previously founded a charter school! In fact, Donahue’s story is a very common “Charter Chief” story. He started in banking, volunteered in a school-based program, made the leap to charters because of a combination of being overwhelmed by the incredible need in schools and having no educational background to apply to that task, and then applying a corporate mentality to the running of a historic non-profit in Old Sturbridge Village. Part of that corporate approach is diversifying revenue streams, including tapping into a little known part of Massachusetts Charter School Law—that museums can operate charters. Is this a conspiracy theory? No, it’s literally in the Old Sturbridge Village annual report (h/t to Brian Allen and Tracy O’Connell Novick):
“The Academies will provide reliable, contractual revenue to the museum, safeguarding us against fluctuations in uncontrollable factors that impact admission revenue.”
So, despite the fact that I don’t think OSV will do a very good job serving ELL students or students with disabilities or any of the other dimensions of diversity that make up our wonderful, messy, challenging district, I do think they’ll try. Because the way that Chapter 70 funding for the state is set up, basically each adjective he adds to a student adds to the check the state cuts him for them (this is MASSIVE oversimplification but the point is ELL and disabilities mean more state money). And it seems “reliable, contractual revenue” and future visitors are who our kids are to them. And you can tell that this is their plan because their budget is based on getting the highest amount of tuition from the state possible. We who have experience writing business plans like to call that “bad planning.” I know, it’s a technical term. I highly recommend reading Brian Allen’s entire testimony, but I’ll let him explain this part:
OSV Is Not Offering ANYTHING New to Worcester Kids
This point was well covered in the public hearing, and I recommend you check out specifics there, but the basics are: we already have nearly 100 percent access to arts classes across our district, we have innovative partnerships with the Worcester Art Museum, not just for field trips, but an AP Arts Course that is city wide and takes place AT the museum (and is rooted in the principles of Universal Design). It’s clear from the lack of letters of commitment or support from the proposed partners that OSV offers no unique relationship to cultural institutions in Worcester and they frankly lack the community grounding to know that groups like Crocodile River Music, Monano Art, Creative Hub, and dozens of culturally-responsive Worcester Arts educators provide in and out of school time, free cultural programming to kids throughout the district.
If more access to arts and culture is what we want, and I am all for that, we have an incredible WEALTH of resources here IN our community that we can continue to build with. It’s embarrassing that instead, Jeff Riley wants to give millions to someone who googled the Worcester Art Museum in the middle of the night, and copy/pasted their partnership offerings into a spreadsheet.
As for academics, it would be fair to assign this proposal as much to Old Sturbridge Village as to EL Education, the multi-million dollar educational not-for-profit that is assigned to do all of the curriculum development for OSV. In fact, Riley, in his recommendation to the board, talks about the two organizations almost as though they are equally responsible for the proposed school: “The proposed WCACPS seeks to provide Worcester families access to a student-centered education supported by EL Education, a national non-profit organization based in New York, and Old Sturbridge Village (OSV), an education management organization (EMO) based in Massachusetts.” It’s also worth noting that OSV is “an education management organization” here and not a museum.
So what is EL Education? As most districts experience it, it’s a company that provides scripted curriculum materials, and frankly there’s little actual evidence out there of its impact. It got in the game in the 1990s, and Donahue met the guy who started it during his time as a charter school founder in Providence and they’ve been work buddies since. It’s genuinely challenging to find any kind of in-depth info on the curriculum that is not jargon or “studies” supplied directly by the company, but an MA thesis study from a teacher found, “Participants indicated their autonomy was stifled when they had to deliver instruction directly from the EL teacher manual.” Similarly, teacher in Wake County, North Carolina that had to adopt the curriculum shared frustration:
“I feel straight jacketed by this curriculum... it feels like we're no longer teaching students, we're just executing a checklist.”
"We've lost the ability to be creative, to be responsive to what's happening in our classroom.”
"It's not reflective of the diversity of our students. We're teaching them as if they're all the same.”
Of course, as we’ve covered, OSV hasn’t historically served a proportionately diverse student body, so I guess that’s helpful in this sense.
OSV Has Not Done Due Diligence
Not to put too fine a point on it, but OSV has no clue what they are doing. And they are counting on the Board to not care, because they knew Jeff Riley wouldn’t. They are siphoning off money to “management fees” and sweetheart contracts for big ed tech. But when it comes to specifics of how any of their copy/pasted jargon will actually work in practice, the details are sparse at best.
Fundamentally, it’s true that this school would pull needed resources from the District. What’s worse though, is that their plan for what to do with those resources is completely nonsensical. They think they can adequately serve about 60 ELL students across five grades with only three educators. They plan to buy a bus and hire a bus driver to take kids on field trips, Ms. Frizzle style, but how is one driver, driving one bus, going to work for 360 kids, and how will you recruit for this role, given the ongoing bus driver shortage? For every question of “how will that work?” There’s a “we will write grants” or “we will plan with community members” as though that isn’t what every other school already does or tries to do. “We’re going to have extended day programming. It will be funded by grants.” As though it’s magic. Again, I’ll defer to Brian Allen:
This Charter Undermines Community Will and Voice
Apparently it is easy peasy to provide all the evidence for the charter, but incredibly challenging to share all of the public comment. As we see here, the positive stuff is linked and ready to ready whereas the public comment, which is overwhelmingly negative, are public records which must be specifically requested via email.
This is just like the original application had to be requested for review prior to the public comment period.
But the good news is, someone did the state’s job for them and made the public comment available and you can read it here, if you’re so inclined. That someone is former Pittsfield Student School Committee Member William Garrity. Thank you! They also buried the video of the public testimony in Riley’s letter, but you can find it here.
As I previously mentioned, while things like a polite declining to engage from the EcoTarium are included as letters of support, the letters of opposition range from almost every single elected official representing Worcester to educators, parents, community members, all with well-reasoned concerns about the viability of the school, the harm it will cause, and it’s general lack of thoughtfulness in approaching our community as partners. It doesn’t surprise me that Riley doesn’t GAF about any of this. He’s built his entire brand on state takeovers and charters. He wouldn’t be where he is if not for his time as the appointed receiver of Lawrence, where the elected school board was stripped of its power with his installment. In addition to ignoring these voices, he’s ignoring the will of our community in electing new school committee members, who then hired a new Superintendent with less than a year on the job. If the concern is low MCAS scores (which, for a multitude of reasons, should not be the concern), then our community has already taken OUR OWN steps to change the district. We don’t need an outsider seizing on MCAS scores to exploit our kids for profit, or Riley to get one more privatization victory under his belt before he potentially finds himself at odds with a new administration.
This Charter Would Virtually Wipe out All New Dollars from Student Opportunity Act
As our State legislators note in their joint letter, the approximately $7 million per year that would come out of the District if this were approved would nearly wipe out the gains made by the Student Opportunity Act. This is an act which, by the way, is meant to remedy the state underpaying us for 25 years. I think this is the least compelling part of the case here, because again, even if you are pro-charter and think Worcester kids deserve more options, this is a BAD OPTION. Still, important to note.
Ultimately, and I wouldn’t necessarily use this in my case to the Board, but to the broader public, the potential approval of this Charter calls our entire system into question. Riley, in his letter, and OSV in their application, both note that the ranking of Worcester in MCAS scores (based on 2019 scores) are part of the rationale for this school. Our schools are under distorted microscopes, with teachers and administrators jumping through DESE developed hoops to prove that they are putting kids first. They’ve been stuffed into prescribed and scripted curricula (like EL Education) so that many are literally reading 2nd graders a script that we’re paying the same companies that make the tests for. DESE has created such a funhouse mirror system of accountability measures that we’re losing teachers in droves, who just want to TEACH and develop our learners. Meanwhile, they’re under so much pressure to get scores up, not just on the MCAS, but on STAR, ACCESS, and any number of online reading and math programs, that they barely have time to help kids be KIDS. And then Riley and OSV have the gall to say that what would really help Worcester kids would be more AUTONOMY. Yeah, it would, in OUR schools and classrooms. And we could do it without giving a blank check to a colonial era museum looking to stabilize its books on our backs. It’s insulting that despite all of the checks and balances, many nonsensical, that our educators have to jump through every day, all a white banker from a museum has to do is copy and paste some flowery words into a google doc in the middle of the night, and Riley is all too happy to give him our kids. We deserve better. All of our kids. And I hope the Board of Education agrees.
Hello Bill here again humbly asking you sign up for a paid subscription.
And lastly a little music plug. Pretty much a year ago I helped my friend Gabe and his Cradle of Judah project record a cover of In A Robe Of Fire by Of The Wand And The Moon for a compilation record of such covers by a bunch of really cool artists. It’s finally out! We arranged the version and recorded it in one long long day last winter in my living room. I added cello and synth. Josh Pratt from Sombre Arcane came through and played some harp. I’m pretty proud of how it came out!