Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

November 14, 2013

Charter school faces foes

School Committee opposes STEAM Studio proposal

By Dustin Luca
dluca@andovertownsman.com

---- — The School Committee has taken a formal stand against the proposed STEAM Studio charter high school in advance of next week’s public hearing on the project.

The committee voted unanimously last week to oppose the charter school being pursued by a team led by one of its own members, David Birnbach, who abstained from the vote.

Next Thursday, Nov. 21, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will visit Andover to solicit public comment on the STEAM Studio plan at a meeting from 4 to 6 p.m. at Memorial Hall Library, 2 North Main St.

STEAM Studio, which is being touted as a school for 450 students in grades nine through 12 that’s focused on STEM — science, engineering and technology study with an added concentration on digital arts and design — is one of six schools statewide hoping to have a public charter in hand by the end of February, according to JC Considine, spokesman for the state department.

Birnbach, who said he refrained from last week’s vote to eliminate the appearance of a conflict of interest, said it is “unfortunate that the School Committee is against giving Andover students the opportunity to choose which public high school best meets their education interests.”

“While I am disappointed, I am not surprised,” he said via email. “This is the same committee that voted against my spring 2013 proposal to establish a Center for Technology and Engineering at Andover High.”

The same committee also “had no interest in a proposal I put forth in 2011 and 2012 to create an Andover Innovation Lab,” Birnbach said. The lab was designed to identify, develop and pilot new initiatives and technologies that enhance teaching and learning in the classroom, he said.

But School Committee members say they believe the Andover school district is already heading in the direction STEAM Studio is aiming to focus on — just with a different road map taking them there.

Member Annie Gilbert said significant strides have been made district-wide over the last several years to improve technology at all Andover public schools, both in terms of infrastructure and in-class application.

She said those advances can especially be seen in the course makeup at Andover High, where the number of engineering and computer science classes and the students who are taking them has tripled in just the last year.

Gilbert said Birnbach’s approach of spearheading program initiatives differs from the majority of the School Committee’s philosophy of “supporting the work that’s coming up from the bottom, from your staff, and developing and supporting a culture that will create more of that and fuel itself.”

“That’s where, I think, the School Committee wants to go,” she said.

While the School Committee has taken its position on the subject, next week’s hearing with the state is aimed at giving the public — and only the public — a chance to comment, Considine said.

“This is not an opportunity for presentations. This isn’t an opportunity to persuade the board members in attendance,” Considine said. “There’s no back and forth. There’s no questions asked or answered.”

The hearing is “one part of a more comprehensive process that includes additional written testimony,” interviews with proposal proponents and more ahead of the department’s final decision, which will come in February, Considine said.

Anyone who is unable to attend next week’s hearing or would prefer not to speak in public can submit written comments through 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 charterschools@doe.mass.edu.