Charters School Today

"I tell every parent that I meet with that the way I see education, it's a three-legged stool: the school is one leg, you're the other and the child is the other," says Fernando Goulart, executive director of Atlantis Charter School in Falls River, Massachusetts. He's held that position for nine years now, and coupled with 20 as a teacher and counselor, he's learned that "if any of us fails to meet our responsibilities, you cannot expect a child to do well, at least not as well as he or she should be able to do."That's why the 702-student school, which runs kindergarten through 8th grade, emphasizes parent involvement so highly. "We really not just invite but we encourage, cajole, pull, fool, trick parents into coming in to participate on a daily basis," says Mr Goulart. He stretches a budget of just under $9m and the time of 113 staff members to include many fun activities to draw families in. And it seems to be working. After 15 years (it opened as one of Massachusetts' first charter schools) there is now a wait list of 364 to get in and places are assigned by lottery. Goulart took the school over in 2000 and is presiding over plans to expand it to meet its charter, which runs to 12th grade, by adding a high school. It's currently spread across two buildings - one for elementary students and one for middle school. They've just purchased 66 acres of land and are embarking on exciting plans to expand to a new campus. The UMass graduate, with postgraduate work completed at Boston University and Brown is convinced that what makes the school so popular and successful is its community spirit.In an area where only 25 per cent of parents have a college education, and only 50 per cent a high school diploma, he felt it was more important than ever to bring them into the fold. "At least 50 per cent of our parents have bad memories of their own learning experience," he says. "So getting those parents in to a non-threatening environment or fun activity allows them to relax and say 'this is not so bad." The school asks each parent for six hours of volunteer time a year, and Mr Goulart says they get that in 70 per cent of cases. Indeed, 20 per cent of parents give more than 20 hours. Fun is the key, he adds: "With all this testing and all of this No Child Left Behind driven stuff it's really taken the fun out of education. I think we need to still remember that these are kids and kids need to have fun and we all learn better when we're having a good time." He's not against testing by any means: "There has to be some accountability," he says, "but when that accountability is solely based on one test it doesn't take into account different learning methods."Mr Goulart thinks the Adequate Yearly Progress measure in particular is too dependent on testing. "There are too many students right now who have the ability, have the knowledge, have demonstrated that knowledge but just can't pass the test. The same thing with staff. We have one teacher at our school who is absolutely incredible. With the way that she is in the classroom, the results that she gets from the kids, and she's taken the test three times and missed it three times. She just has issues with the test and I've heard that repeated time and time again."Mr Goulart would like more flexibility in choosing teachers he thinks are 'highly qualified' rather than having each one tested and certified. "It's difficult to meet the goals that have been established for you when you really don't have the flexibility you should have to do things in a different way."The school tries to think out of the box in its teaching methods. It's using a workshop model, with a 15 minute mini-lesson on a topic and then work in small groups, to teach reading and writing, for example. It's seen great results, as has an Australian math program called Advantage Math. "This year we hired four elementary teachers who have been trained to teach elementary math, so we've basically departmentalized the elementary school in grades one through four so that the regular classroom teacher teaches everything but not math. 12 students go to math at a time, the other students stay in the class and then they switch."Even with the coming expansion, Mr Goulart feels the curriculum - which is worked on by all staff members - should be an evolution not a revolution. Teachers have a forum to suggest changes during staff development every Tuesday after school, and for four days at the beginning of each year. "We meet with our teachers and listen to our teachers because they know what is working in the classrooms," says Mr Goulart. Discipline is handled through a system of merits and demerits. There have been no expulsions, and Atlantis favors in-school suspensions to stop kids from going home and watching TV or playing computer games. With such a strong community spirit - 60 per cent of students arrive in Kindergarten together and graduate 8th grade together - Mr Goulart says that trouble mainly comes from students who enroll from other districts and are testing the boundaries. It's his coming retirement next summer and the school's expansion program that keeps Mr Goulart up at night. Atlantis, like all charter schools in Massachusetts, gets no money from the state for facilities. So, as architects consult on making a new, super-green campus, he is concerned with trying to raise $30m to $50m in funding and loans to complete the building. "It's a really exciting time for us as we look to provide our students and staff with a facility that will allow us to do many of the things that are now so difficult to do." Among the things he's most looking forward to is a new science lab for all students to share. While they're limited in number by a law that stipulates charter schools can only take 9 per cent of students in a district, Mr Goulart hopes that Atlantis will expand to its maximum capacity of around a thousand when building is complete. Whatever happens, he wants to keep the community spirit strong: "We had an unfortunate incident where two of our students, their house burnt down to a crisp and they were thrown out on the street with four other brothers and sisters. In a two day period we raised over $6000 just in the school from our students, our parents and our teachers to help this family. This type of giving come from the closeness that has been created by students who know each other well."--Todd Rogers is a well known article writer for Charter School Today. Currently, he is writing on Charter Schools, local charter school and public charter schools.Source:

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