BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — It’s not likely Rachel Hunt will ever forget her 30th birthday, and not only because she went to lunch that day with her future husband.
Earlier that day in February 2003, the Massachusetts Board of Education approved the charter for Salem Academy Charter School, a new public school that, in one form or another, had been on Hunt’s mind since her college days at Wesleyan University.
Hunt seemed an unlikely founder of a charter school. Not only was she young, but she was known locally mostly for the two years she spent as a Spanish teacher at Collins Middle School. And although the charter school had supporters, it also had detractors, including members of the Salem School Committee, which oversees the district public schools.
In that somewhat hostile environment, Hunt founded an independent public school that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year after a decade of growth. It has expanded from two grades with 88 students to a grade 6-12 school with 372 students.
Hunt, head of school at Salem Academy and now the mother of two young children, hasn’t done too shabbily herself. This month, she won a seat on the Salem School Committee. In fact, she topped the ticket in her first run for elective office. It’s hard not to conclude that the success of the charter school had a lot to do with the success of her campaign.
During the election, a man approached Hunt after a school forum — a man she recalled as an archenemy of the charter school from a decade ago. Hunt jokingly asked if he had changed his mind after 10 years.
“I have,” he said, “and I want you to know that.”
Signs abound that Salem Academy Charter School has changed a lot of minds. Last year, for example, about 40 percent of fifth-grade students in the district schools applied for admission to the charter school.
The Salem district schools, which have been struggling, now work more closely with the charter school and, in some ways, are following the lead of the little school in Shetland Park. To try to raise MCAS scores, the Salem School Department has contracted with Achievement Network, a private company that does periodic student assessments and follow-up coaching with teachers. Salem Academy Charter School has been working with Achievement Net for years.
It is both hard and easy to measure the success of the charter school. Although it has done well in many areas and is rated highly by the state, its success, in some instances, is measured by a relatively small student sampling. For example, 100 percent of graduates were accepted to college last year — but there were only about 20 graduates.
And although the school’s MCAS results are superior to the district’s at every level, they are below the state average in some instances.
Salem Academy surely has its limitations. Due to its size, it has more limited offerings in sports and extracurricular activities than district schools. Its physical plant within Shetland Park, a business and industrial complex, is not ideal. Students go to the Boys & Girls Club for gym classes and use city fields and the Jewish Community Center in Marblehead for sports.
There are plans, however, to build a gymnasium in conjunction with Shetland Park, its landlord.
But Salem Academy prides itself on a school culture focused on learning and high standards. The school schedule is 15 days longer than most public schools, and the school day is longer — classes start at 8:30 a.m. and end at 4 p.m.
The school sends out a clear message that college is the goal.
There are college banners all over the school. At a College Day held each year, students wear college gear and eat cupcakes decorated with small pennants from the colleges attended by teachers and administrators. At other times, college T-shirts are handed out as prizes to students.
“Our goal is every student will be accepted to a four-year college,” Hunt said.
When a grade or class does especially well on the high-stakes MCAS exam, the school holds a pep rally — like the kind most schools hold for athletic teams.
“That’s an example of a conscious, defined effort to build a school culture that celebrates learning,” said Sean O’Neil, the executive director of Salem Academy.
The charter school has worked to make Advanced Placement, or AP courses — the most rigorous offered at public schools — the rule rather than the exception. This year, a whopping 70 percent of students in grades 11 and 12 are enrolled in at least one AP course.
The charter school’s unflinching focus on academics has not gone unnoticed. It has been ranked among the top schools in the state and nation by Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report.
In 10 years, the city’s independent charter school has earned a reputation as a place where standards are high and achievement is honored.
“We work at that,” O’Neil said. “What I tell kids is, ‘You need to understand — if you’re a student here, it’s cool to be smart.’”
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.