By Dustin Luca
---- — ANDOVER — It was a sharply divided crowd that testified on a proposed charter high school in Andover yesterday, with such a large turnout that the hearing was paused at one point to clear aisles for fire safety reasons.
About 30 people in a crowd of more than 150 at Memorial Hall Library addressed officials from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education who were in town to collect public comment and testimony on the STEAM Studio charter school.
More than half of those speaking against STEAM Studio were local school administrators and officials, including Andover Superintendent Marinel McGrath and School Committee members Barbara L'Italien and Paula Colby-Clements, as well as John Lavoie, superintendent and director of Greater Lawrence Technical School in Andover; Stanley Limpert, chairman of the North Andover School Committee; Kevin Hutchinson, superintendent of North Andover Public Schools; and Joanne Benton, superintendent of Wilmington Public Schools.
For the first hour and 40 minutes, comments mostly alternated back and forth between supporters and opponents, with discussion coming mostly from opponents at the end due to a lack of further supporters.
One speaker — Hugh Smith, a senior at Andover High School who also fills administrative roles in the community — delivered polarized opinions from Andover High.
Andover High's School Council, made up of students, teachers, administrators and more, voted against the proposal, while the AHS student government supported it, he said. Smith counted himself among the supporters.
With the two governing bodies at Andover High taking opposing sides, Smith said the positions mirrored a greater issue in the community that was frustrating him.
"There are many opinions out there," Smith said. "One of the things that has been frustrating me about this whole issue has been that facts haven't been clearly set up by either side. I've seen statistics from either side that don't match up, and everything seems extremely polarized."
Andover parent Cindy Cromer voiced her support for STEAM Studio based on her son's prior request to go to a technical school, given that he wasn't getting what he wanted at Andover High.
"There isn't enough hands-on for all of the students at Andover High," she said. "I know some students excel there, and I'm happy for them. But there isn't enough there for all of the students."
Based on that, Cromer said she had trouble "understanding why an option is a negative thing" in the eyes of school officials.
"The opposition I'm hearing is based on budgets and money, and fear," Cromer said. "I don't hear much about students. The focus needs to be on students."
Hutchinson, the North Andover schools superintendent, recalled his previous role as a teacher administrator at Gloucester Public Schools, where he said a charter school opened up and eventually collapsed.
"I've seen the failed implementation of a charter school, from initial concept to rocky approval, to abrupt shutdown in the midst of a school year," Hutchinson said. "From beginning to end, Gloucester Public Schools were forced to adapt to the fluctuating impact both to school finances and most importantly to student learning."
Joanne Benton, Wilmington Public Schools superintendent, offered that decades of research establish what makes for school success: "communities that value education, families that nurture their children's academic endeavors, and classroom teachers who know how to inspire children."
"One of the strongest criticisms of charter schools is they fail to serve students with the greatest needs," she said, "disrupting communities, increasing the achievement gap, all the while achieving similar, or worse, educational outcomes than the public schools."
After the hearing, STEAM Studio founding member Melanie Ziegler said the event was "what the community needs — a good, healthy debate."
"The community has to want the charter school, or it doesn't make sense to do it," she said.
When asked about the number of school administrators and officials speaking against the proposal, Ziegler said she felt "the district wants to make sure their points are represented and heard. As a result, there were a large number of people speaking on their behalf."
In the weeks ahead, the individual founding members behind STEAM Studio will interview with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. An additional forum in Andover is also anticipated ahead of the state's decision, according to Ziegler.
Those who couldn't speak at the forum can provide written testimony until Jan. 3 to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, c/o Charter School Office, 75 Pleasant St., Malden 02148 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.