Baker charter cap raise costly for WHRSD, Whitman-Hanson School Committee says
The School Committee on Wednesday, Oct. 14 approved a change to National Honor Society eligibility as well as hearing concerns by school officials concerning Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal to raise the cap on the number of charter schools in the state.
The committee also heard an update on the high school’s advanced placement (AP) program.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner testified at a Statehouse public hearing on Gov. Baker’s charter school legislation Tuesday, Oct. 13.
Begun in 1993, charter schools were originally capped at 25 innovative schools.
“Clearly, that’s not what has happened over time,” Gilbert-Whitner said in her report to the School Committee. “Yesterday the testimony I read really focused on the impact to W-H.”
The district is charged based on the per-pupil cost multiplied by the number of students attending charter schools. With 30 students from Whitman and Hanson attending South Shore Charter and Rennaissance Carter School in Boston, the loss to the district’s state aid — after about $26,000 charter school reimbursement — is about $309,000 Gilbert-Whitner said.
“Interestingly, [$309,000] is the same cost that we had to cut from our library program,” she said.
She also noted that, of the 30 local charter school students, only one has ever been enrolled in W-H schools.
“They never even come to see what we’re about,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “Clearly the choice to go to a charter school probably doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the quality of education.”
South Shore Charter is a Level 2 school. Gilbert-Whitner reminded the committee that W-H is a Level 2 district with three Level 1 schools.
Charter school faculties are not required to have union representation or to provide services for all special education students, and not all teachers working for charter schools are certified.
“Each and every student in the Commonwealth deserves a high-quality education, not a dual system of publicly funded education that charges traditional districts for circumstances beyond their control and requires them to operate school systems under a vastly different set of regulations,” Gilbert-Whitner testified in Boston.
“There should be choice,” she told the committee, “ but clearly, there should not be a different set of rules for everyone.”
W-H accepts school choice students and currently enrolls 28, ranging from freshmen to seniors as well as night school students, but sending districts are charged less under that program.
“Choice money has been extremely beneficial,” Principal Jeffrey Szymaniak said, noting it has allowed the hiring of some long-term substitutes for teachers out due to long-term illness.
Szymaniak also argued successfully for a change in National Honor Society (NHS) eligibility to bring W-H onto the same level as other schools in the state. The committee voted 9-0 to approve the change. Member Fred Small was absent.
NHS guidelines had required an unweighted 3.5 GPA on a 4.0 scale or a 4.3 on a weighted 5.0 scale for AP courses. Students taking AP classes, but not earning an A or B despite doing well overall academically might be penalized if they fall below a 3.5 GPA, Szymaniak said. The rare occurrence affected four seniors in the Class of 2015.
“The national standard for the NHS is a 3.0,” he said. “I did some digging, called my peers on the South Shore and the average unweighted GPA for the National Honor Society at our local schools is a 3.3 or a 3.4, so we kind of picked the middle ground.”
He advocated a change to 3.35 for W-H requirements.
“This will put us on an equitable playing surface,” Szymaniak said. “It’s not dumbing-down the rigor, it’s not dumbing-down anything.”
The change goes into effect immediately and induction has been moved to November so this year’s seniors can apply.
Guidance Counselor Ruth Carrigan and AP students Erika Badger and Joshua Spicer joined Szymaniak in outlining the success of the W-H AP program.
Prior to the district’s participation in the Mass. Insight to Edcuation grant program in 2012, AP participation was often open to only top-scoring academic students, according to GilbertWhitner. The grant has since expired.
“With the grant program, we were able to expand and it’s just gotten better and better,” she said.
Szymaniak started by reading an email by an alumnus, now studying at Suffolk University, to his W-H science teachers.
“I’m sitting in my environmental science lecture and not paying attention because I don’t have to,” the student wrote to teacher Brian Dukeman. “Your AP course completely prepared me for this class. … I already know every single thing my professor is talking about because of your awesome teaching.”
The student was able to skip all the required freshman science courses because he passed the AP biology exam “with flying colors” and is the only freshman in the class he is now taking, required of environmental science majors.
“That’s just a piece of what AP brings,” Szymaniak said. “AP at Whitman-Hanson gives all students an opportunity to not only take a college class, but to potentially earn college credit.”
He credited the training and commitment of W-H teachers, as well as dedication of students for the success of the AP program in which the school is on track to administer 648 AP exams to 392 students — a quarter of all high school students.
“I congratulate our students for taking on the challenge,” Carrigan said. She reported that alumnus Nate Almeida, who spoke at the recent AP kickoff breakfast, told current students that the 19 college credits he earned in AP courses have saved him $25,000 in college costs.
This year, Badger and Spicer are both taking four AP courses for a total of eight each during high school — Spicer in literature, calculus, computer science and physics and Badger in calculus, environmental science, biology and literature.
Both lauded their teachers as well as peers for inspiring them and pushing them to succeed in the AP classes.
“Although you have to be at a certain level, there’s so much help here at W-H that — whether it’s your teachers or your peers or your guidance counselors — it’s almost as if anyone can come into it and succeed.”
Szymaniak said the goal is for every W-H graduate taking at least one AP course, “or at least attempting the class,” so they are truly college and career ready.