Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

August 8, 2013

Charter school proposal raises plenty of questions

The Andover Townsman

---- — A proposal for a charter high school in Andover caught many in town off guard this week — as much for who is proposing it as the fact that it’s being proposed at all.

School Committee member David Birnbach is one of the driving players behind STEAM Studio, a school for ninth- through 12th-graders that will focus heavily on what’s become known as STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — with an additional A for art and design thrown in as an extra benefit.

While Birnbach and his group have been meeting three or four times a month for the past six months, school officials — including his colleagues on the School Committee — only began learning about the proposal in the last couple weeks. And they did so through an email sent by Birnbach.

Birnbach is no newcomer to the educational structure in Andover. He’s a four-term member of the School Committee, having been elected for the first time in 1985. He later returned to the School Committee, with his last election back to the group in 2009.

There’s no denying he’s been vocal about his beliefs that the Andover schools should be focusing more on STEM teaching and making strides in the area of technology. He made a proposal to the School Committee earlier this year to establish a Center for Technology and Engineering at Andover High School.

He said that center would help the high school better adapt to the new demands of the 21st century, address the growing importance of technology and engineering and offer vital courses that prepare students for today’s innovation economy. He even penned a column on the subject in The Townsman this spring.

That proposal was never acted on by the School Committee. Now, it has been woven into his proposal to the state for the creation of STEAM Studio.

Birnbach told The Townsman this week that he wasn’t intending his proposal to be controversial, that STEAM Studio would simply serve as a complement to what’s being offered at Andover High School by providing interested students and parents another public school alternative.

He also said a charter school would be one way of easing what are very real concerns with overcrowding at the high school that will need to be addressed in the not-so-distant future.

All of that may be true. But Birnbach needs to be more transparent with the process and his intentions. And at some point, he may have to take a hard look at where his allegiances lie.

It would appear it might grow difficult being an advocate for the existing public school structure in Andover while also promoting a new charter school that would create an “exciting high school experience” for as many as 450 students in the years to come. And take away public funding from the existing schools in Andover in the process.

We urge Birnbach to give a presentation on his proposal to not only school officials, but the community. And we recommend he consider in the weeks to come where his priorities rest and decide whether he can fully carry out his duties on the School Committee while also promoting the creation of an alternative school in town, however exciting the concept may or may not be.