"Children spend most of their day with their teacher. Who knows the child better?" Conte said last night, as she argued in favor of a proposal to turn Silver Hill Elementary School into a charter school.
That would give Silver Hill teachers and administrators the power to draw up a curriculum they think would work best for their students. It also would remove the school from the control of the School Committee, instead establishing a board of trustees at Silver Hill.
Conte was among more than 50 parents, teachers and school administrators from across the district who packed the school's library to give their opinions on converting Silver Hill to a Horace Mann charter school. State education officials listened to the comments. Haverhill will get a decision Feb. 26 and hopes to have the charter school running in September.
Conte and other parents of children at the school said they trust the Silver Hill staff knows what's best for students. The staff is making the proposal for the charter school.
"Giving teachers the power to express their voice can make a powerful difference at this school," said parent Liz Sullivan, a member of Silver Hill's parent-teacher organization.
The state would give the school between $500,000 and $750,000 over the first three years of a five-year charter. Of that money, $180,000 is for teachers to attend on-site professional development through the University of Connecticut, said Silver Hill Principal Euthemia Gilman.
Silver Hill previously received approval from the state to apply for a Horace Mann charter because it was criticized by the state last summer for poor student performance on the 2006 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test. For the previous two years, Silver Hill was on the state's "needs improvement" list for MCAS.
There are 62 public charter schools in Massachusetts, including Hill View Montessori School in Haverhill. Hill View is considered a Commonwealth charter school, run with public money and cash from other sources, and with staff members who are not public school employees. A Horace Mann charter goes to an existing public school, and its staff members are public school employees.
If Silver Hill's charter request is approved, it would open in September for up to 580 children in kindergarten through grade five, Gilman said. The school currently serves 611 students.
The children, who as a group have poor MCAS scores, would study a curriculum focused on whatever they need to improve those scores - special English and math classes, for example.
As a charter school, Silver Hill would not have to follow the district's instructional curriculum or be limited by the teachers contract that spells out what hours teachers can be asked to work and what duties they can be asked to perform, Gilman said.
School Committee President Kerry Fitzgerald followed up on Conte's comments by saying the staff within a school knows what is best for that school.
"Give them more flexibility with their funding," Fitzgerald said.
Superintendent Raleigh Buchanan told the panel that it was one of his dreams to have a Horace Mann school in his district.
"I'm proud that the faculty and community have come together for this initiative," Buchanan said.
Parent Frank Libby sat quietly while others got up to speak in favor of Silver Hill's request.
He said he'd learned a great deal about the proposal by attending information sessions led by Gilman.
"From my standpoint as a parent, they did a really good job at getting the information out and why this is a good thing for Silver Hill," Libby said. "You have to wonder where it will go from here. If this works, and Silver Hill becomes a charter school, could it become a catalyst for more change in the district? I think it's all positive."
The proposal, which is being driven by the school's 35 teachers, received the necessary endorsement of the Haverhill Teachers Union and the School Committee.
Retired public school teacher Michael Veves of Haverhill told the panel that Horace Mann schools keep one foot in the traditional educational process while the other can "step out of the box a bit."
"It's usually very hard to get all of your teachers behind an initiative such as this," Veves said in praise of Silver Hill's request. "You want to have 100 percent support from your principals and teachers."
Converting Silver Hill into a Horace Mann charter school would make the school independent of the School Committee and give it the power to plan its own curriculum.
It's the kind of power that Haverhill Education Association President Marc Harvey told the panel can be good for Silver Hill.
"The HEA overwhelmingly supports a concept that gives teachers power," Harvey said of the teachers union.
Haverhill High School Principal Bernie Nangle also addressed the panel, saying the effort to create a Horace Mann school at Silver Hill has a better chance at succeeding because it comes from teachers.
"Ideas from the top down don't always work," Nangle said. "Ideas from the bottom up succeed."
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How it works
* 580 children in kindergarten through grade five to attend.
* Students from across the city can apply for admission, under school choice rules.
* School receives $500,000 to $750,000 over the first three years from the state. Money is used to improve curriculum and train teachers.
* Teachers can create a curriculum different from other Haverhill schools, geared in particular toward improving MCAS scores.
* Teachers are not bound by union contracts that limit their hours or duties.
* The charter school would open in September.