Why Spirit of Knowledge Charter School Should Be Saved

It's pretty clear that this is an out of the ordinary post for this blog. I talk about all sorts of geeky stuff on this blog - Dungeons & Dragons, Stephen King, Call of Cthulhu, etc. This post is a lot more personal. I've a hunch the audience for this posting is very different from the normal audience for my blog - but this is my corner of the internet and this is far too long a posting for Twitter or Facebook. It also explains why I've not been particularly active on this blog of late.

When I first began this blog my wife was dealing with partial employment, working as a long-term sub when possible. In fall of 2012 she secured a full time job at Spirit of Knowledge Charter School in Worcester, MA and began her second year there this fall.

[Note - this the remainder of this blog posting represents my understanding of a situation. If I have any factual errors I will most certainly acknowledge them and correct them. i.e. no slander or libel is present here. And while I'm married to a teacher there, this is my own opinion and not hers.]

The school is in dire straits right now. There is every chance that in 48 hours the Board of Trustees will vote to close the school though there are a few paths to an alternate ending.

Does the school deserve that alternate ending? And how did it get to this point?

Let's start with how we got to this point. Spirit of Knowledge Charter School is a STEM school - dedicated to Science, Technology, and Math. Last spring it was put on probation:
The school has “employed four executive directors, has not maintained a sound or stable financial condition, has failed to maintain adequate membership on its board of trustees, has not provided the academic model proposed in its charter, has not shown promising academic results, has a significantly decreased enrollment from what it projected in its application, and will face financial challenges as a result of its drop in enrollment. It is clear to me that the school's board of trustees has failed to oversee SOKCS effectively,” Mr. Chester wrote in his May 10 letter to the state board.
Worcester Telegram and Gazette, Tuesday, May 21, 2013

So that sounds pretty bad. I'd actually agree with a large portion of it - in my opinion the Board of Trustees had been a bit of a mess, especially early on. A large amount of money was lost when trying to purchase a building for the school, with a good-faith deposit essentially absconded with by the builder. And giving such money to a builder instead of an escrow seems at best incredibly naive.

This had a cascading effect. Enrollment diminished. With lower enrollment they have to pay back some of the money initially allocated for this year and future allocations will be less. 

From a financial standpoint  the school will run out of money at the end of the month. They will not be able to meet payroll in November.What could allow them to make their payroll? The line of credit they have with Commerce Bank. The school has reduced payroll such that the remaining funds they'd get from the state for the remainder of the year will be sufficient, albeit delivered in chunks, The line of credit would allow the school to make it between these quarterly lump payments from the state.

But, Commerce Bank has, as I understand things, been a bit concerned about the financial future of the school. I can't say I blame them. I would imagine what makes a loan officer lose his or her job is giving out a loan which is defaulted upon. And I can absolutely see what might a bank nervous. We'll come back to that in a bit.

I would like to talk about why the school should, in my opinion, be saved. "Well gee Dan your wife works there, you want to stay a dual-income family." And it'd be disingenuous to say anything other than of course I want the financial security. However it's an unfortunate fact that our economy values engineers far more than teachers. I think that's a tragedy personally. Don't get me wrong, I love a good salary. But being married to a teacher, being the son of a teacher, and being the brother-in-law of a teacher, I have a very good idea of how much work a teacher puts in. My point is, financially, if I keep my job (fingers crossed - one can never take anything for granted), we'll be fine - not great, but we'll be ok, with my wife collecting unemployment and/or substituting for the rest of the year and hopefully securing a new full-time job in the fall. It's worth noting that is not the case for all the teachers there - many of the teachers are the primary or sole earners for their families.

But a school should not be saved just for its teachers. And that's where I'd like to talk about the kids at this school. In meetings last Thursday and this Sunday afternoon the room was packed with concerned parents and students a well as the staff. Some of the students were even there on their own to speak on their behalf. And to hear the passion all of these people spoke with was awe-inspiring. These are people who want to stay at this school. Desperately so. They feel they are getting a great product.

Why would they ever think that you might wonder. It was all over the local papers how poor the school's 7th grade MCAS scores were. MCAS, for those of you outside of Massachusetts, are our standardized tests. To graduate, a student must pass the 10th grade MCAS tests. (I'm simplifying a bit). It is worth noting that the school's success at the 10th grade MCAS, the final MCAS exam, was above the average for the city. This to me points to the whole point of a school - to improve students. To move beyond where you started. Moreover, what the kids there do beyond 10th grade is phenomenal. There is a large percentage of students taking AP classes. My wife is teaching second year of college-level organic chemistry to many seniors. Student have been recognized for their service to the community. They have had summer jobs at various university laboratories and have assisted in research in areas such as HIV investigations. Many of these are students who did not prosper at public schools. The students and their parents are desperate to stay at Spirit of Knowledge where they have found success - both via anecdotal accomplishments and through measurable means such as 10th grade MCAS, AP students, etc.

Academically, I believe the school is doing great work. Were I in charge there I'd certainly work to improve the middle school MCAS scores - I'm not going to say any school is perfect.

This beings us to the concerns banks might have. With lower enrollment the school sees less money from the state. So enrollment dropping further is certainly a risk. However, I believe that the drops the school might experience have already occurred. The overwhelming thread from the parents was "how can we convince people we want our kids to stay here?"

I know the Board of Trustees is working to have the credit line unfrozen, albeit without luck as yet. They've also been pursuing other sources of short-term funding, though with time short their best bet would seem to be in unfreezing their credit line. If I were a loan officer at a bank I think I could be convinced the school is doing good work and the parents and students want to stay there. But there's another issue I think. Even in this posting to the defense of the school it is clear the financial record of the school is murky at best. The action the Board indicated was being pursued was bringing in a management company which specializes in turning charter schools around. I'm hoping that this might provide the confidence a loan officer would need. 

I've a few random thoughts to close with...

Do I hate public schools or have something against them? Absolutely not. My wife has taught in public schools in the past and would gladly do so again. My kids are also both in public schools and are both prospering there. I think the advantage is a matter of different solutions for different kids. 

Why am I writing this? Best case someone with financial authority reads this and it helps them make a decision. But without that, even if the school does close its doors this week, I want to go on record as having voiced my support as best I can. I was truly in awe of the students, the parents, and the teachers. 

Is there someone to blame for the financial mess? Probably. But I'm absolutely not privy as to where things went wrong. And truthfully, even if I were, I'd be hesitant to write about that in a blog - that does start approaching the realm of potential libel. But one of the reasons I like the idea of a management company being brought in is they would be in a position to ask such tough questions and take actions.

And two quotes that come to mind, one from Theodore Roosevelt and the other, back in keeping with my blog, from the television show Babylon 5.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 
- Theodore Roosevelt

There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way. The war we fight is not against powers and principalities, it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender.
- Babylon 5, Z'ha'dum


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