WSJ November 17, 2018
A Mayor Seeks to Stymie His City’s Only Successful School
By Tunku Varadarajan| 794 words
New Bedford, Mass.
Ivyanna, Moises, Jenielys, Giselly. The names on the bulletin board of a kindergarten classroom reveal the notably Hispanic demographics of Alma del Mar, a K-8 charter public school in this blighted city that was once America’s foremost whaling port. In fact, the majority of the school’s kindergarten is comprised of students whose first language is Spanish. By the time they get to first or second grade, many will speak better English than their parents.
Housed in a sprawling new building, the school’s interior is a clean, hushed hive of industrious students and teachers. There is no obvious indiscipline, no unruly children bouncing off the walls. At the playground outside, students hop off monkey-bars and swings to greet the principal, who accompanies me on a tour of the school. She greets them back by name.
Alma del Mar (which means “soul of the sea”) is a success story in a city that badly needed one. Started in August 2011, it now has 446 children on its rolls—and even more than that on a waiting list, clamoring to be admitted. There is a lottery every year, explains Kaitlin Goldrick, the school’s 30-year-old principal. Every child at Alma del Mar “is here because their families want them here,” she says. “The lottery can be a heartbreaking night,” says Ms. Goldrick. “There are families that enter the lottery year after year, and never get in.”
Families are drawn to Alma del Mar’s record as well as its optimistic spirit. “They want their children to get a good, serious education, and they know they’ll get it here,” says Ms. Goldrick. That seriousness is evident in the almost obsessive insistence at the school that its students be referred to as “scholars.” On a three-hour visit there I heard a teacher say “students” only once—followed by a sheepish “Oops, I mean scholars.”
The majority of New Bedford’s students must endure dysfunctional district schools that are among the worst in terms of performance in all of Massachusetts. By contrast, says Will Gardner, Alma del Mar’s founder and executive director, “our third-graders performed last year at the same level as a third-grader in Wellesley on the state’s test in math.” (Wellesley is among the most affluent suburbs in Massachusetts.)
For all its success, Alma del Mar is embroiled in local controversy. In August, the school applied to the state to get 1,188 more seats for students, the entire quota for new charter seats for the school district of New Bedford. (Massachusetts, like many other states, puts caps on the numbers of students in charter schools.) The school aims to add two new campuses, one next year and another in 2020. Yet the city’s mayor, Jon Mitchell, has declared he will fight Alma del Mar’s expansion.
“I intend to oppose it,” the mayor said recently, “because I don’t believe that this is the right thing for the city.” He added, without supporting evidence, that Alma del Mar “has demonstrated itself not to be a constructive partner with the school district.” A recent article in Common Wealth magazine by supporters of the mayor and the teachers union criticized Alma del Mar for getting political support from “the think-tank crowd”—a reference to the Boston-based free-market Pioneer Institute, which has promoted the school.
At the root of the resistance, supporters believe, is a panic in the mayor’s office about relinquishing control over education in the city. Alma del Mar reports directly to the state, not to the city’s elected school committee. There are competing petitions online—one for and one against the school’s expansion.
The state will rule on Alma del Mar’s application in February, but the opposition to her school leaves Ms. Goldrick more perplexed than indignant. Speaking of opponents of the expansion, she says, “Their perspective is that they want all of the money to go to the district, because they feel, ‘How can we get better if we aren’t getting the money we deserve?’ They say they need time to get better, and that charter schools make it harder for that to happen.” (Each student at Alma del Mar brings state funding with him, subtracted from the district’s share of state aid. Massachusetts is required to compensate the district.)
“My response to this,” says Ms. Goldrick, “is, ‘Why should these families have to wait for things to get better?’ For our families, New Bedford is a failing school district. So if something doesn’t change, why should a child have to wait 10 or 15, or who knows how many, years? By then they’ll be out of school.
“Besides,” she adds, “isn’t it important that our families—and all the families in New Bedford—have a choice?”
Mr. Varadarajan is executive editor at the Hoover Institution. ■