SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 17, 2014

Charter school embraces new space

By Neil H. Dempsey
Staff Writer

---- — SALEM — It wasn’t a far move, but teachers and students at Salem Community Charter School say their new location at the Museum Place Mall is a world away from their last.

The school for high school youths who have dropped out or are at risk of doing so recently moved into space on the second floor of the mall. Prior to that it was in first-floor quarters that were so cramped that teachers struggled to break students into groups, and seemingly vital items like teachers’ desks were often relegated to storage.

The school now boasts classrooms dedicated to humanities, math, science, wellness, special education and employment, as well as group workrooms, office space and a cafeteria. Also important, the school now has its own bathrooms, so students and staff no longer have to rely on the facilities inside the mall.

“It’s a lot better because it’s more room,” said student Omer Kilic, 21.

“It’s nice up here; it’s very welcoming,” student Heidi Rivera, 17, said.

Whereas the school’s previous digs were basically windowless, many of the new rooms offer views, be they into the mall itself or — in the case of the special education classroom — out onto the busy Essex Street pedestrian mall.

The new space benefits students in a variety of ways, said Lindsay LaRusso, the school’s humanities teacher and curriculum coordinator. For one thing, teachers can break students into small groups, and students now have enough space to work independently or receive one-on-one tutoring.

Another improvement is that teachers can be anchored to permanent space in their rooms, something that offers stability for students and staff alike, LaRusso said.

Additionally, youths with “significant risk factors” like the ones served by the school benefit from extra space because they have more room to move around, and teachers can better keep them “up and involved” in classroom lessons, LaRusso said.

“You want them to have the space,” she said.

The new school features exposed ceilings, bright colors and a straightforward style that brings to mind hip hangout destinations farther down Essex Street. LaRusso said it was appropriate that an alternative school look alternative — “We don’t want to look traditional” — and that it stood in stark contrast to the previous space.

“There’s no drab in this school,” she said.

Internet access has also improved since the school moved. Increased bandwidth has allowed teachers to rely on it, which they never could do before.

“You’d load a YouTube video, and 10 minutes later, you’d be like, ‘You know what? I’ll just act it out for you,’” LaRusso said.

The school opened in September 2011. Its charter mandated that it grow by 25 students each year, but the size of the school’s space prohibited it from doing so this year or last. The school still hosts only about 50 students, the number it started with.

Thanks to the new location, the school is expected to begin adding students next school year, and officials anticipate having as many as 80 enrolled by next April.

The school has also saved some space for later expansion when new students start coming in. Among other things, that space could host a science laboratory.

The state’s education commissioner had previously voiced concerns that the school didn’t have an adequate facility.

Salem Community Charter School is funded by the Salem School Department but is managed by its own board of trustees. It’s not to be confused with the Salem Academy Charter School, which serves grades six to 12 at its location near Shetland Park.

Neil H. Dempsey can be reached at ndempsey@salemnews.com.