Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

October 3, 2013

STEAM Studio powers ahead

Charter school plan advances to next round

By Dustin Luca

---- — A proposed charter high school with its sights set on Andover has won the go-ahead to advance to the next stage in the state application process.

The proponents of STEAM Studio, led in part by School Committee member David Birnbach, now have until Oct. 25 to file a full application, making official their plans to establish a new education center focused on science, technology and the arts in Andover.

“The team is excited to go to the next step,” Birnbach said. “We’re focused now on completing the final application.”

The state is expected to issue its final decision next February, after a lengthy public hearing and vetting process.

One question still unanswered is where STEAM Studio will be sited. And that answer could take some time. JC Considine, spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the plan could actually gain state approval before the school has a home.

“Most of these groups won’t find an actual location until they receive a charter,” Considine said.

Birnbach said the group behind STEAM Studio is “looking at five locations,” but declined to identify them given ongoing negotiations. He did say existing buildings in Andover are being eyed.

“We hope to get more, to finalize the plans on the school building in the next couple months,” he said.

As for an ideal location for a charter school, Birnbach pointed to a model charter out in San Diego, Calif. — High Tech High — as one similar to the STEAM School vision. Built in 2000, the California-based school serves 570 students in grades 9 through 12, according to its website.

Once fully operational, STEAM Studio would serve a maximum of 450 students in grades 9 through 12.

Meanwhile, disagreement continues over whether Birnbach’s dual role as a School Committee member and charter school proponent creates a conflict of interest.

School Committee Chairman Dennis Forgue said he still has “concerns over potential conflicts of interest. My concerns haven’t changed.”

“I would appreciate it if he spoke with the (state) Ethics Commission, but he hasn’t chosen to do that,” Forgue said, referring to a prior request for Birnbach to ask the commission about his involvement on School Committee subcommittees.

Birnbach maintains he already received guidance from the state on the overall issue of his dual roles and said further advisement isn’t necessary.

“I’ve received very clear guidance from the state Ethics Commission that I continue to follow and will continue to follow going forward,” he said, adding the state’s invitation to submit an application for STEAM Studio won’t change his position.

The state agreed to advance seven of the 10 proposals seeking to establish charter schools. In addition to Andover, the other proposals are in Fall River, Fitchburg, Lynn and Springfield.

Proponents had to show they are committed to education to advance to the next round, Considine said.

“We’re looking for evidence that a proposed school is going to open on time and be successful,” Considine said. “If, at this point, we think there’s enough evidence that the proposal shows enough promise, we’ll move them forward.”

For the three that didn’t get through the door, “it’s not uncommon for a group to go through this process more than once,” he said.

Considine also said in the past, some groups that won the right to submit formal applications ended up not following through.

“We’ve seen, in years past, that an invitation to apply doesn’t mean a group will apply,” Considine said. “Sometimes a group will decide, ‘we’re not in the right place. We need to wait a year.’”

That won’t be the case for STEAM Studio, Birnbach said. The team is all in.

“The focus for the final application will be focusing on school governance, rules and responsibilities ... the school policies, the school leadership structure, and more information on the facilities,” he said.

“We’re talking to folks at the Department of Education this week to get further guidance on the remaining items to work out.”

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