Lowell’s Charter School Options Growing
LOWELL -- What if there was another option?
For students entering ninth grade in Lowell, there will be.
The first ninth-grade class at the Collegiate Charter School of Lowell is expected to start this fall, introducing another option for high school in the city and, some officials say, further challenges for the already limited financial resources of the city.
“I don’t think there’s so much tension,” said Walter McGrail, chairman of the charter school’s board of directors. “I think there’s opportunity.”
However, others do feel this tension, as local charter schools have added hundreds of state-approved seats, more than doubling city-paid tuition expenses over the past six years.
“It certainly will have an effect on the school system,” said Mayor William Samaras. “The thing is (the city) knew it was coming. ... I’m just concerned that our bill to the charter schools is going to be far more than it is in the past.”
Three stories of skeletal steel framework hinting at the Collegiate Charter School of Lowell’s coming expansion stands next to the charter’s first permanent location, a $17 million construction project paid for by the school at 1857 Middlesex St., which opened to students in fall 2016.
The physical expansion, delayed a year, is expected to open in fall 2020, to house its high school classrooms, among other amenities, as the charter continues to add one grade a year through 2022. The first 62-seat ninth-grade class will attend school next year on the fourth floor of the existing building.
The charter school, McGrail said, offers parents a choice for students who may learn best in different environments.
“These students feel very good about their performance at the Collegiate Charter. ... They have made the comparison that they are doing better than they have done in their other schools,” he said.
Charter schools, he emphasized, are a type of public school. If not Collegiate Charter School of Lowell, he asked, where would these students go?
The city faced this issue a decade ago when some feared the state would shut down a different charter school due to lagging student achievement scores. At the time, administrators said the district would need to add one or two schools to educate these students, in addition to facing a $1 million shortfall.
Currently at Collegiate Charter School of Lowell, 843 students from kindergarten through eighth grade spread across 30 classrooms attend class in the building. School officials say these students hail from Lowell, but also surrounding communities like Dracut, Chelmsford and Tyngsboro.
The expansion into ninth grade this year comes with the hiring of four new teachers, according to Director Laurie Hodgdon. The physical structure will include a full-sized gym, locker room, cafeteria and a yet-to-be-determined number of classrooms.
As for the students, school leaders said most are expected to come from the school’s eighth-grade class, but spots will open for a lottery if not all opt to continue at Collegiate Charter School of Lowell. In coming years, classes are expected to expand to about 100 students per grade, meeting its 1,200 student state cap.
To transport these new students, the Collegiate Charter School of Lowell plans to shift to a split start time next fall, as mandated by the Planning Board in an effort to alleviate traffic. The change is projected to increase transportation costs for Lowell Public Schools by between $350,000 and $450,000 next year, though district leaders say they plan to work with the charter school on the issue.
A central difficulty charter schools pose for the city’s budget is related to state-required tuition funding, Lowell’s Chief Financial Officer Conor Baldwin said.
In addition to the Collegiate Charter School of Lowell, the city is also home to two other charter schools: Lowell Community Charter Public, which has 814 students, and Lowell Middlesex Academy Charter, which has 91 students, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Since the Collegiate Charter School of Lowell opened in fall 2013, the city’s net charter costs have more than doubled from $9 million to over $21 million, according to a city budget packet released last spring.
In comparison, the city funded Lowell Public Schools $15.7 million in this fiscal year’s budget.
“We expect families and students in Lowell will struggle with higher fees, bigger classes, displacement from neighborhood schools and lost programming even as per pupil spending remains stable or increases,” Baldwin wrote in his budget report.
Though the state’s funding mechanism is complicated, critics of the formula point to per-pupil funding, which means money spent by the district on the student follows the child to the charter school.
Cutting resources that would have gone to this departing student in the traditional district isn’t always feasible, Baldwin said. Often students depart from different grades and leave resources used by multiple students, including many who continue on at the school.
“Just because you have 25 and not 30 kids, you can’t shut down a school because of that,” Baldwin said.
However, this math -- fewer students equals less money -- applies to more than just the draw of charter schools, said Lowell School Committee member Gerry Nutter.
He said he is more concerned by Lowell High School, which is expected to be under construction from 2021 to 2026. While the project is ongoing, he believes it will deter students from attending the school.
“Right now (the charter) is not a big concern,” he said. “The big concern for me is when we start the high school project.”
Despite reports of heating and other facilities issues at Lowell High, the number of eighth-graders enrolled in Lowell Public Schools who go on to attend the high school has remained relatively steady at about 55 percent over the past five years, according to information obtained in public information requests.
Samaras said he would like to see Gov. Charlie Baker supportive of charter schools in a way that doesn’t impact funding for traditional public schools. For now, he said, more schools in the city means a greater incentive to improve programs and give students a reason to stay.
“We just became more competitive,” Samaras said. “We’ve got to offer the best education we can.”
Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins.