BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — After a bumpy start, the Salem Community Charter School, a public school for high school dropouts, is making steady progress, charter school officials said last night.
“We’re going to do really well on the next site visit,” Principal Jessica Yurwitz said at a joint meeting at Salem High between the charter school’s board of trustees and the Salem School Committee.
The meeting was scheduled after Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester took administrative action against the charter school in May, citing “substantial concerns regarding the management of the school.” The school was “placed on conditions” and given deadlines for making improvements.
However, the school for about 50 at-risk students, located inside Museum Place Mall — which is not the same as the Salem Academy Charter School — received good marks in a follow-up visit last month by the state’s’ Charter School Office.
The state officials said Salem Community Charter School “has made significant progress towards addressing each of the conditions placed on its charter.”
During last night’s meeting at Salem High, officials at the two-year-old charter school tried to explain some of the reasons for the poor evaluation by the state. Some of it is due to the unusual nature of their school, which is unlike other charter schools in the state, even those that serve dropouts, they said.
Students at Salem Community spend time in the classroom but also are in sheltered work programs, counseling sessions, internships, jobs and community-based programs.
Although cited for poor student attendance, the school actually has relatively good attendance, Yurwitz said, because the out-of-school programs are all part of the curriculum. After the school recently purchased computer software that can reflect the various educational placements outside the school building, attendance went up markedly, she said.
Yurwitz also pointed to MCAS scores that show a high number (92 percent) of students passing the English Language Arts section of the high-stakes state exam.
One problem the state cited will be corrected in October when the school moves into a much larger space in Museum Place Mall, officials said.
That move to a better facility “will change our lives greatly,” said Dr. Edward Bailey, chairman of the board of trustees.
School Committee member Jim Fleming grilled charter school officials about the highly critical findings by Chester and asked why they had not been complying with state regulations.
“The rules don’t exist for our kind of school,” Yurwitz said.
For example, the principal said the school had to spend a year developing a system of performance standards, or “competencies,” by which students will be judged in place of traditional letter grades.
Fleming also asked why the School Committee wasn’t informed of the commissioner’s action back in May.
“I don’t think the School Committee heard about the report for a month or two,” he said. “Now that’s wrong.”
Yurwitz said she thought Salem school officials were informed right away.
“We don’t hear too much about what you’re doing,” Fleming said. “We don’t even know who’s on the board.”
Both the charter school trustees and the Salem school board agreed that they have to improve communication and meet more often.
Above all, there was general agreement that the charter school, which was started by the Salem School Committee, has taken on an important and difficult mission: serving students who have dropped out because they are homeless, battle mental health issues, have been victims of trauma or face other challenges.
“This is an incredibly noble effort to salvage these kids,” School Committee member Brendan Walsh said.
Yurwitz reported that one student graduated in the school’s first year and 10 more this year.
“If it wasn’t for this program, those 11 students who graduated — who knows where they would be.” said School Committee member Nate Bryant, who used to serve on the charter school board.
The state makes its next site visit in January.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.