EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 6, 2013

Charter school pitched in Andover

Designed for 450 students in grades nine through 12

By Bill Kirk

---- — ANDOVER — A group led by School Committee member David Birnbach is proposing opening a charter school focused on engineering, technology and the digital arts.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced Friday that 10 groups submitted proposals for charter schools in districts across the state.

In Andover, the charter school would focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, Art/Design and Mathematics, or STEAM as it’s known in education circles. The school would be called ‘STEAM Studio’ and would be for grades nine to 12. It would open in September 2014 starting with ninth-graders only. Over four or five years, it would increase to four grades and 450 students.

A location hasn’t been determined.

Birnbach, who has been pushing for increased technology education in the school district as a four-term member of the School Committee, said in the application dated June 26 that the goal of the new school would be to blend the teaching of science and math with computing and digital arts.

“Our curriculum blends the mind of a scientist or technologist with that of an artist or designer and teaches flexible thinking and creative problem solving needed to succeed in today’s global economy,” said the executive summary of the 73-page proposal.

Birnbach sent an email about the proposed school to members of the School Committee last week and met with the assistant superintendent about the proposal.

Supertinendent Marinel McGrath could not be reached for comment.

School Committee Chairman Dennis Forgue, on vacation in Maine, said he didn’t know much about the proposal and had only spoken briefly with Birnbach about it.

“Anything he did he did as a private citizen, not as a School Committee member,” Forgue said, adding he thought it was “highly unusual” that a committee member should propose a charter school in his own district.

“I don’t know if it’s ever happened before,” he said.

Birnbach said last night that he listed himself as a School Committee member on the proposal documents because he was required to. He said, however, he is acting as a private citizen in proposing the school.

“My role in leading the team is 100 percent as a private citizen,” he said.

Other School Committee members were surprised by the proposal.

Annie Gilbert said she got back from a two-week vacation over the weekend and found an email from Birnbach announcing his plans.

“I was surprised,” she said. “I look forward to hearing more about the proposal. I didn’t know he was working on it.”

Birnbach said he and the team only just recently decided to locate the school in Andover. While the letter of intent stating the group’s intention to put the school in Andover was sent to the state June 26, the prospectus wasn’t sent in until last week, on July 29.

Gilbert said she also was concerned about the impact the school could have on the district’s budget. She noted that funding for charter schools comes in the form of tuition payments from the sending district. That is, for every Andover student attending the Andover charter school, the state reduces Chapter 70 education aid based on a per-student formula.

“We have to get up to speed on its affect on Andover,” she said.

Birnbach said Andover High School is overcrowded by 250 students and that an addition on the school would cost $14 million to $18 million. A charter school, he said, would take students out of the high school so that the district might not have to build a costly addition.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” he said.

J.C. Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the Andover proposal would be viewed on its merits along with the others.

In addition to the Andover charter school proposal, the state announced it had also received proposals from Fall River, Lynn, Springfield, Fitchburg, Westborough, Brookline and Cape Cod.

The state will review all the proposals over the next several weeks and decide which ones are deemed most worthwhile to submit full applications. The groups making it through the first cut will have until Oct. 25 to submit full applications.

For more on the proposal, see this week’s Andover Townsman.