This June, when the first graduates of the New Bedford Global Learning Public Charter School received their diplomas, they marked a major milestone, not only for themselves but also for an innovative institution that first opened its doors six years ago: All 14 members of the school’s first graduating class were accepted to college this fall. In a community where fully two-thirds of the student population qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and many children come from homes where English is not the first language, this is an achievement to celebrate.
“One of the greatest things that the Global Learning Charter Public School has taught us is that nothing is more powerful than community,” said Shakeela Najjar, the school’s valedictorian who will be attending Boston University in September. “Whatever we went through over the past four years, we went through together.”
Community is a byword for the school, which was designed to draw on and reflect the unique character of New Bedford, Massachusetts, a working-class seaport town with a rich history, much ethnic diversity, a vibrant arts community, and a leading marine science industry. “From the beginning, it was about creating a school that was an integral part of the community, and the community was very supportive,” explains EDC Vice President Vivian Guilfoy, one of the school’s founders.
The school was designed by a coalition of community leaders working in collaboration with Guilfoy and several EDC colleagues, including Vice President Ron Israel and Senior Project Director Carolee Matsumoto, as well as Chancellor Jean MacCormack at UMass Dartmouth. It was formed to capitalize on the marine science industry as well as other local resources. School leaders developed a core college preparatory program emphasizing 21st century skills and promoting academic achievement in mathematics and science through project-based learning. “The curriculum has global dimensions and is built around interdisciplinary projects that tackle real-world problems,” says Israel.
A new school finds an old home
Today, as the school settles into a permanent home in a former Catholic school just a mile from downtown New Bedford, many of its early goals are coming to fruition. With the new building, staff are working toward a cohesive “one-school” model that integrates grades 5–12 in a seamless program. They feel confident the groundwork has been set for continued growth and success, as the school expects full enrollment in September and is pleased that half of its 8th graders will be continuing on to the high school. “We are seeing steady improvement in our scores year after year,” says Warren Berube, the school’s executive director.
The school enjoys active associations with New Bedford’s Ocean Explorium, Whaling Museum, and Community Boating Center. A growing internship program links all 11th and 12th grade students to local businesses or institutions for yearlong apprenticeships. Early on, the school became a member of the High Tech High Network of schools in San Diego, with which it continues to have a strong affiliation. It also enjoys a unique relationship with UMass Dartmouth, where students can take classes for college credit, and staff enjoy multiple professional development opportunities, including a mentoring program for new teachers and a principal licensure program.
Perhaps no one exemplifies the spirit of the staff more than Vice Principal Lena Pires, who joined the school in its first year as a substitute teacher and went on to earn her teacher certification. Today, she is licensed as a principal through the UMass Dartmouth program.
“We retain our staff,” says Pires. “Five of our teachers are licensed as principals, and we haven’t lost one yet.” Instead, they are developing a shared-leadership model, in which decisions are made by teacher teams in partnership with the administration. It is an innovative way to tap the staff’s considerable leadership skills while keeping them in the classroom, where experienced teachers are needed most.
A unique opportunity
For EDC leaders, the charter provided an opportunity to build a school from the ground up, bringing together areas of expertise it had promoted elsewhere only in part. “Our involvement in the school grew out of a long history at EDC—a tradition of excellence in areas such as science and mathematics education, curriculum development, teacher professional development, career education, and community involvement,” explains Guilfoy. “We conceived of it as a school that is rooted in the reality of the present but with an eye toward the future.”
In the development years, EDC staff took a lead role, drafting the proposal, negotiating with the teachers union, recruiting families, and training staff. They also shared some of EDC’s best curriculum materials and professional development programs. “My professional life at EDC had been about improving schools and providing professional development for teachers,” says Matsumoto. “What an opportunity to be involved with a school from its inception.”
She recalls meeting with community-based and neighborhood organizations to enlist support, and hosting evening meetings for interested parents. Jessica Ross, a volunteer recruited by EDC in the school’s first year, went on to earn her teaching certification while working at the school and last year was named 2007 Teacher of the Year by the Community Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts, a city-based philanthropy.
In the years since the school’s founding, EDC has handed over its leadership role but has continued to consult to the school, both formally and informally. Guilfoy relishes the role of catalyst that EDC played in the development of the school, establishing the framework and goals, attracting talent, and mobilizing the community. “Over the years, we stepped back because we knew the school would only succeed if the community took ownership of it,” she says.
This June, when she heard valedictorian Shakeela Najjar reflect on the role community played in her high school experience, Guilfoy knew the school had made good on its early promise. “In her speech, I heard a pride in the ideas that we incubated there at the beginning. It was proof that those core values had flourished.”
Originally published on September 11, 2008