Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

February 20, 2014

STEAM Studio plans stymied

State rejects proposed charter high school

By Dustin Luca
dluca@andovertownsman.com

---- — The team behind the proposed STEAM Studio charter school may have been passionate, but it failed to fully develop its plan for a new high school in town.

That’s the message in a report released Tuesday by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Last Friday, STEAM Studio — the proposed technology-focused high school being spearheaded by School Committee member David Birnbach — failed to earn the recommendation of DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester.

Without Chester’s recommendation, STEAM Studio’s hopes of opening in town this fall have been dashed.

“For those that aren’t moving forward, they’re done for this cycle,” JC Considine, DESE spokesman, said. “Like with any of the proposals that aren’t successful, they’ll have the opportunity — and are invited — to re-apply in future years.”

Aside from a brief three-sentence statement emailed on Friday, Birnbach has been unavailable for comment on the fate of the proposal he fought ardently for over the last several months.

In the statement, he thanked “parents and students throughout the Merrimack Valley for their interest.”

“(We) are inspired by the support we have received locally and nationally,” he said. “In the next few months, we will update the community about our plans going forward.”

In its 10-page analysis on STEAM Studio’s application, DESE credited the school’s proponents for demonstrating “a passionate understanding of and connection to the proposed mission and vision” to the project as well as “a strong commitment to serve Andover and the surrounding communities.”

However, DESE outlined a total of 34 weaknesses with the proposal, along with only 14 strengths.

The report said STEAM Studio’s “vision is not sufficiently developed or integrated into the implementation of a comprehensive educational program.”

The state review team also cited the STEAM Studio team for what it called “limited information on how the proposed educational practices may improve the academic performance of the anticipated student population and its diverse needs, including students with disabilities and English language learners.”

It also said the staffing plan in the application “did not align with the proposed budget, or the application narrative.”

Similarly noted was the “performance, promotion and graduation standards” for STEAM Studio, which the review said was all too familiar given the area the school targeted.

“The promotion and graduation standards are closely aligned to the present Andover High School policies, and do not appear reflective of the unique nature of the proposed school, and its STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art+Design, and Mathematics) communities,” the review reads.

That argument is one school officials and other opponents repeatedly made over the last several months in questioning the need for STEAM Studio.

Local opposition to the proposal in the form of public testimony and written comment was also among the weaknesses identified. Opposing testimony came from Andover parents, teachers and administrators as well as school officials in neighboring North Andover and Wilmington, among others, the report said.

STEAM Studio was built around a model of STEM education — with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math, plus an added concentration on digital arts and design. The school, which would have been phased in over four years, was to cater to students in grades nine through 12.

The majority of the eventual 450 pupils enrolled were expected to come from Andover.

The proposal encountered considerable criticism from the outset, including from the Andover School Committee, which argued the town was already providing the type of education being envisioned at STEAM and that the proposed charter school would result in serious financial implications for the local school district. The committee voted unanimously to oppose the plan, with Birnbach abstaining.

Yet, while some questioned the need for a charter high school in Andover, others argued STEAM Studio would fill a gap in STEM education that they say currently exists in town.

School Committee Chairman Dennis Forgue said while discussions in the months since STEAM Studio was proposed last summer grew heated at times, the district “found ourselves in a competitive situation, and that always raises the bar.”

Ultimately, the proposal led Andover school officials to take stock of “what’s really going on — and going on effectively” at both Andover High School and Greater Lawrence Technical School in town, Forgue said.

“What came out of it, from my perspective, in a large way is we put a large spotlight on STEM and STEAM academic programs that are occurring both at the vocational school and at Andover High School,” Forgue said. “We were able to identify and articulate more effectively all the different course work in these areas.”

Andover Education Association president Kerry Costello said the teachers union was “elated” at the state’s decision “because it reconfirms what the Andover Public Schools, the AEA, the high school community has believed — that our high school is excellent by design.”

She said with the decision behind them, the district and the teachers can now “focus on the things we need to do to keep moving forward.”

“We do have room for growth, room for movement,” she said.

The rejection by the DESE commissioner is not, however, a fatal wound for STEAM Studio.

The opportunity for the proposal’s architects to throw their hats back into the ring next year is a notable one, given that the two charter schools that won favorable recommendations from the commissioner — Argosy Collegiate Charter School in Fall River and Springfield Preparatory Charter School — were passed over last year.

“Those two, Argosy Collegiate and Springfield Preparatory, are actually good examples of those that were unsuccessful in the past (and) took the time to strengthen their applications,” Considine said.

“They listened to the feedback from the department, made their applications better and were successful in a subsequent application cycle.”

STEAM Studio