THIS GUEST OPINION PIECE BY: Jack I. Bartholet, U.S. History teacher at New Bedford High. He is graduate of Johns Hopkins University where he served as Executive President of the Student Government Association and Editor-in-Chief of The Johns Hopkins News-Letter. 

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As an educator and proud resident of the city, I feel the need to jump in and correct a few misconceptions that have been circulating with some numbers-based facts.

The first is this: Alma de Mar does not provide a high-quality educational alternative to our public schools in New Bedford.

In a recently published video lobbying for its expansion, Alma del Mar touts itself as a charter school that “deserves every single seat it can get” and claims that “its results prove that it deserves those seats.” The numbers tell a different story.

On its most recent “Official Accountability Report” from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), Alma del Mar earned only 2 of 4 points (50 percent) for achievement in English Language Arts, 1 of 4 points (25 percent) in Math and in Science, and 0 of 4 points (0 percent) in English Language Proficiency.

More alarmingly, DESE classifies Alma overall as only “partially meeting targets” with a striking 47 percent progress towards reaching its improvement goals.

This is from a school whose recent lobbying video starts off, “New Bedford is a community whose traditional public schools – district schools – have struggled for too long, and Alma del Mar in particular is a charter school that has met the needs of that community in very exceptional ways.”

Setting aside for a moment that Alma’s results are far from exceptional, it’s unclear just what community Alma is referring to, given that its DESE Report Cards show that, on average over the last three years, Alma has accepted:

-     17.9 percent fewer students whose first language is not English than the City of New Bedford

-     12.3 percent fewer English Language Learners than the City of New Bedford

-     6.5 percent fewer students who are economically disadvantaged than the City of New Bedford

-     6.1 percent fewer students categorized as high needs than the City of New Bedford

-     5.5 percent fewer students with disabilities than the City of New Bedford

With such an unrepresentative sample of the New Bedford community, student performance at Alma should be through the roof, not limited to only meeting 47 percent of its improvement targets.

The argument that Alma is academically superior just doesn’t hold water; it is simply attracting and accepting students who require fewer resources while failing to teach them effectively and depriving our starving public schools of vital funding.

This poor teaching and learning data shouldn’t be surprising; Alma’s teachers and administrators are overwhelmingly unqualified, especially compared to our New Bedford public school faculty.

According to the most recent figures from DESE, only 60.7 percent – let me repeat that, 60.7 percent – of Alma’s teachers are licensed in their teaching assignment. This is compared to our city’s public schools, where 92.6 percent of faculty are licensed in their teaching assignments. I’m not sure about you, but I wouldn’t want my children to be in school where barely half of their teachers are licensed to teach their classes.

Moreover, DESE finds that of Alma’s faculty, only half – 51.2 percent – who teach core academic classes are considered by DESE to be “Highly Qualified.” This is a truly alarming figure. By comparison, 88.2 percent of the faculty in our New Bedford public schools are considered “Highly Qualified.” Additionally, of Alma’s teachers, DESE reports that just 54.3 percent are considered by the Commonwealth to be “experienced.” For New Bedford’s public school teachers, that percentage is 69.3 percent.

Perhaps this is why of the 33 teachers that Alma employed last year, only 19 returned to their positions for this year.

DESE’s data regarding administrators are even more jaw-dropping: the percent of administrators that DESE has deemed “experienced” at Alma is 0 percent. ZERO of the school’s core leaders are experienced. This contrasts with New Bedford’s public schools, where 59.5 percent of administrators are experienced. It’s no wonder the school’s academic data is so poor; the school’s leaders have no experience running a school.

The sad truth, however, is that this data matters less for charter schools, because they are judged primarily against the terms of their charter. Even still, Alma is failing when judged against the criteria it set out for itself.

Alma is largely assessed against the stated goals in its charter, first approved in 2011. For the 2016-2017 school year, according to a report published by Alma itself, out of eight measurements of its “Faithfulness to Charter” and “Academic Program Success,” Alma only met three of its objectives: conducting annual home visits, conducting annual family conferences, and getting a majority of families to say they were satisfied with the school’s level of communication in a survey – not exactly difficult goals to reach.

For the other five objectives – the only academic ones – Alma failed to fully meet its stated goals ranging from increasing math and literacy scores to 80 percent over five years to achieving 80 percent of students reading at grade level. Not one academic goal was fully met.

These failures further prove that Alma’s claims of being a high-quality alternative to New Bedford Public Schools is a farce. For a school with greater resources, unrepresentative student populations, and a penchant for bragging about the quality of its academic programs, Alma is falling far short of the narrative it’s peddling to the residents of New Bedford.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our city’s leaders are not powerless.

Speaking with many of our elected officials, they expressed that they feel powerless given the unbecoming decision by the Commissioner of Education John Riley and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. This decision extorts our city and its residents by saying that if our community does not hand them the Kempton School, Alma’s charter cap will dramatically increase by an additional 594 seats. While this was an inappropriate decision, our local leaders have the final say.

Per state law, the Kempton School deal must be approved by the Massachusetts State Legislature, the New Bedford City Council, and the School Committee. Our leaders should vote it down.

Proponents’ arguments go something like this: we don’t want any charter seats in New Bedford, but since the Commissioner and Board have stuck us with the choice between a 450-student Kempton School or a 594 increase in Alma’s seats without the school, we should approve whatever gives Alma fewer seats.

Here’s the problem with that logic: Alma is going to request as many seats as they can get each year, the Commissioner and Board have shown that they will approve them blindly, and Alma will continue to balloon. If we approve the Kempton School, we will be giving Alma the physical space to expand and stamping our community’s seal of approval on their expansion making it even easier for the Commissioner to approve future increases right up to the cap.

Instead, local leaders should reject the Kempton School deal and use every power at their disposal from local ordinances to legal actions to prevent Alma from acquiring the physical space to fill any additional seats. Otherwise, Alma will walk away with both the school and the additional seats come next February.

But there is a broader point, and that is this: decisions as important as the proper education for our students must instead be based on reason and logic, not untethered rhetoric.

The facts here are clear. Alma del Mar does not offer quality education to our students, and because of this, it is bad for New Bedford.

Editor's Note: 'SouthCoast Voices' is a series of guest opinions from newsmakers across the region, on relevant issues that directly impact the people of Greater New Bedford and the surrounding communities. The opinions are solely those of the author. If you are interested in contributing, please contact tim@wbsm.com for more information.