By Dustin Luca
---- — A sharply divided crowd turned out last week to testify on a proposed charter high school in Andover that’s seeking a green light from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
More than 150 people — including local and area education leaders, parents and students — packed the second-floor hall at Memorial Hall Library for the chance to make their case on STEAM Studio charter school.
The forum is one of the steps in the state’s review of STEAM Studio’s application to create a school focused on science, technology, engineering, arts and math for up to 450 students in grades 9 through 12. A decision will be announced in February.
More than half of those voicing opposition for STEAM Studio were school administrators and officials, including Andover Superintendent Marinel McGrath and School Committee members Barbara L’Italien and Paula Colby-Clements; John Lavoie, superintendent and director of Greater Lawrence Technical School in Andover; Stanley Limpert, chairman of the North Andover School Committee; Kevin Hutchinson, superintendent of North Andover Public Schools; and Joanne Benton, superintendent of Wilmington Public Schools.
For the first hour and 40 minutes, comments mostly alternated between supporters and opponents, with discussion focused on opponents at the end due to a lack of further supporters.
One speaker — Hugh Smith, a senior at Andover High School who also fills administrative roles in the community — delivered polarized opinions from Andover High.
The School Council, made up of students, teachers, administrators and more, voted against the proposal, while the AHS student government supported it, he said. Smith counted himself among the supporters.
With the two governing bodies at Andover High taking opposing sides, Smith said the positions mirrored a greater issue in the community that was frustrating him.
“There are many opinions out there,” Smith said. “One of the things that has been frustrating me about this whole issue has been that facts haven’t been clearly set up by either side. I’ve seen statistics from either side that don’t match up, and everything seems extremely polarized.”
Speaking on behalf of student government, 16-year-old Tarushi Sharma said the main factor for her group in supporting the school “was the distinction between the debate over the budget and over opportunity.”
“The student government believes that the STEAM Studio serves as a unique and innovative opportunity that is unavailable at Andover High School, and that it would benefit its students and prepare them for the ever-evolving world we live in today,” Sharma said.
Another student, Angelina Lionetta, however, spoke against the school. She described a school project working with the green construction certification program L.E.E.D. from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Using the project as an example, she said STEAM initiatives are alive and well at Andover High. She said she didn’t see “why a new school is necessary when very similar programs are being developed here.”
“Are there issues at Andover High School? Yes, of course,” she said. “No system is perfect. It’s my strong belief that we, as a community, should work together to truly fix our problems rather than cover them up with a fancy, expensive Band-Aid.”
Andover parent Cindy Cromer voiced her support for STEAM Studio based on her son’s prior request to go to a technical school, given that he wasn’t getting what he wanted at Andover High.
“There isn’t enough hands-on for all of the students at Andover High,” she said. “I know some students excel there, and I’m happy for them. But there isn’t enough there for all of the students.”
Based on that, Cromer said she had trouble “understanding why an option is a negative thing” in the eyes of school officials.
“The opposition I’m hearing is based on budgets and money, and fear,” Cromer said. “I don’t hear much about students. The focus needs to be on students.”
Andover parent Betsy Brother told the audience a different story, one where she withdrew her son from Andover High School due to its overcrowding woes.
“It’s a huge place,” she said. “There are a lot of kids that leave the district because of the crowding issue.”
While saying STEAM Studio could help relieve the pressure at the school, Brother admitted that the proposal wouldn’t solve the problem, but it would bring an education alternative to town.
“I certainly know that two of my children would really benefit from that type of learning environment that the charter school is promising to offer,” she said. “Anyone who is afraid that it will take away from the resources and programs that are available to be offered at the high school is really just not being open-minded.”
Meanwhile, Hutchinson, the North Andover schools superintendent, recalled his previous role as a teacher administrator at Gloucester Public Schools, where he said a charter school opened up and eventually collapsed.
“I’ve seen the failed implementation of a charter school, from initial concept to rocky approval, to abrupt shutdown in the midst of a school year,” Hutchinson said. “From beginning to end, Gloucester Public Schools were forced to adapt to the fluctuating impact both to school finances and most importantly to student learning.”
After the hearing, STEAM Studio founding member Melanie Ziegler said the event was “what the community needs — a good, healthy debate.”
“The community has to want the charter school, or it doesn’t make sense to do it,” she said.
When asked about the number of school administrators and officials speaking against the proposal, Ziegler said she felt “the district wants to make sure their points are represented and heard. As a result, there were a large number of people speaking on their behalf.”
In the weeks ahead, the individual founding members behind STEAM Studio will interview with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. An additional forum in Andover is also anticipated ahead of the state’s decision, according to Ziegler.
Those who couldn’t speak at the forum can provide written testimony until Jan. 3 to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, c/o Charter School Office, 75 Pleasant St., Malden 02148 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.