BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester has taken administrative action against the Salem Community Charter School due to serious concerns about its management.
The grade 9-12 charter school for high school dropouts was “placed on conditions” in May and given deadlines to address a number of issues.
“I have substantial concerns regarding the management of the school based on evidence gathered during site visits conducted by the Charter School Office,” Chester wrote in a May 10 memo to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“In nearly two years of operation, SCCS has not secured a safe and adequate facility, has not maintained an effective attendance system, has not provided the academic model proposed in its charter, and has not adhered to its growth plan,” he wrote.
A site visit report said students are “chronically absent.”
The two-year-old Salem Community Charter School, which has about 50 students inside the Museum Place Mall, is not the same as Salem Academy Charter School, an independent public school for grades 6-12 in Shetland Park.
Superintendent Stephen Russell said when he saw the negative report in May, he was “a little bit caught by surprise.” Although the charter school for dropouts was created by and funded through the Salem School Department, it operates independently and has its own board of trustees, he said.
“It’s alarming on the face of it,” Russell said of the report.
However, Russell said he also received a letter from the state education department indicating the state supports the school, wants it to succeed and is using “tough love” to try to improve it.
On Friday, the school received a positive progress report from the state following a visit last week.
“(Salem Community Charter School) has made significant progress towards addressing each of the conditions placed on its charter,” the emailed memo stated. “All requested documents have been provided to the Charter School Office in a timely manner and supporting materials have been both detailed and comprehensive.”
An administrator and board member from the Salem Community Charter School said they have made significant progress in recent months.
“A lot of the issues in that (memo) have already been addressed,” said Linda Saris, a board member.
One major concern, the facility, has been resolved. The charter school opened two years ago in a small, cramped space next to a haunted house inside Museum Place Mall. This fall, it will move to a much larger and newly constructed space on the second floor of the mall.
As for the academic program, the curriculum model filed with the state was based on a Boston charter school for dropouts, where Salem Community Charter School Principal Jessica Yurwitz used to work, officials said. The school program that has evolved over two years in Salem is much different, and a new curriculum has been written.
The school’s charter is expected to be amended to reflect the new academic model, officials said.
As for chronic absenteeism, Yurwitz said they do not operate by a standard school day, where students attend classes from morning to afternoon. Many of their students also go to community-based programs, counseling, internships and other work assignments. She said a new attendance formula is being designed that will better reflect time spent in educational experiences away from the classroom.
Using this more detailed tracking system, Yurwitz said school attendance was 70 to 75 percent in June.
Yurwitz conceded that attendance is a problem, but noted that the school is working with students who have dropped out of school and face a number of extreme challenges. For example, she said one-third of the student body is homeless, meaning they could be sleeping on friends’ couches or moving from place to place.
After the state contacted Russell, the superintendent said he and Mayor Kim Driscoll met with charter school officials and have followed up on the matter.
On July 31, the School Committee will hold a joint meeting with the trustees of the Salem Community Charter School to discuss the state action, the superintendent said.
Driscoll said she is “very concerned” about the DESE site visit observations, but also understands that the school is taking on a challenging assignment.
“I am supportive of providing options for young people in our city who have dropped out or are in danger of dropping out, which this school does,” she wrote in an email. “The work is extremely hard and many of the students served by the charter school come from very challenging backgrounds and heart-wrenching situations.
“Even though the school is only in its second year of operation, they have had success graduating a number of students, and that is important not only for the students, but for our community. That being said, the school has to improve in the areas noted by DESE, especially low student attendance and instructional practices.”
The state education department said it will keep close watch over the school.
“Depending on the school’s success in meeting (or not meeting) the conditions, Commissioner Chester will recommend further action as appropriate,” J.C. Considine, a spokesman for the commissioner, wrote in an email. “We’ll keep apprised of the situation through site visits and reviews of materials that the school submits to us.”
The Salem Community Charter School was created by former Superintendent William Cameron and the School Committee, in part, in response to a threat by an outside group to open a similar charter school locally.
It opened in September 2011 for 50 local students who had either dropped out of high school or were at risk of dropping out. According to its charter, it is supposed to grow by 25 students every year until it reaches a student body of 125.
On Friday, it held a graduation for 10 students.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.