By Tela Zasloff
Julia Bowen, Executive Director of The Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public School (BART) in Adams, MA, believes that every child can excel and go to college if provided a supportive and vibrant academic environment. BART focuses on a classic college preparatory curriculum emphasizing both the arts and technology, guided by the BART school mission: to instill children with lifetime habits, of purposeful hard work and nurturing of their own individual skills. Aristotle confirmed this notion—“Excellence is a habit.”—and his dictum is posted on the classroom walls.
Bowen also identifies the school mission as broadly connected to the building of social justice in our communities: “Our student body typically mirrors those of our three main sending districts, Pittsfield, North Adams and Adams-Cheshire. Yet they are achieving much better academic results at BART. That, to me, is the value we provide more than anything else.”
In the 13 years that BART has been in existence, the school has a record to be proud of. In the 2013 state assessments, BART’s composite performance index (a measure of how all students are progressing in English and math) was higher than the state’s both in aggregate and for special education and low-income students; BART has been profiled as exemplary by the National Center on Time & Learning; has an ongoing partnership with Harvard Graduate School of Education; received a citation from the MA Senate for recognition by the US Dept. of Education EPIC program for breakthrough student achievement gains; has a 100% acceptance rate to college for its graduates, with the most recent class data available showing 90% persisting into the second year of college, a significantly higher number than the national average. (Bowen points out that it is too early to say what the statistics are of those who graduate college.) Bowen explains that the state assessments (MCAS) measure both performance (grades, academic record) and how much each student has grown relative to their academic peers statewide. In BART’s case, the growth rates have, over time, been the highest in the county.
Size, and style of teaching and learning, are important factors in student and family satisfaction at BART. The student body of over 350, grades 6-12, take classes averaging 16 in each, and each student is assigned a teacher-advisor who provides individual guidance and mentoring. Besides the standard college prep and Advanced Placement courses, all students take, starting in 6th grade, a class called Collegiate Skills, and, in senior year, receive individualized college and financial aid counseling, work in an 80-hour internship, pass a college class as preparation, and present a portfolio of their work to a panel of community members and college representatives. Their creative opportunities include participation in student arts exhibits and partnership with North Adams’ Main Street Stage theater company, working with performing arts professionals. Their technology curriculum includes computer programming and game design, electronics and robotics, graphic design, digital photography and videography, and electronic music and sound design.
On Election Day, November 8, the ballot will present to voters Question 2. This proposed law would allow the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to approve up to 12 new charter schools or enrollment expansions in existing charter schools each year. This has been a contentious issue throughout the state, involving arguments about responsibilities between the state and local communities in funding public schools; which districts would benefit from this new law and which not; how funding can be equitably distributed according to the economic level of each district; whether increasing the number of charter schools in the state would drain the support now allocated to the non-charter public schools. For a full discussion of this issue, go to this website: https://ballotpedia.org/Massachusetts_Authorization_of_Additional_Charter_Schools_and_Charter_School_Expansion,_Question_2_(2016)
BART’s Executive Director Bowen makes the following points about Question 2: Districts argue that if students move to a charter school, the district loses the fixed-costs funding granted to those students which the districts need to support their total system. She understands that concern but is comfortable with this process because when a charter school opens, the state has an additional funding source that reimburses the district for the money that was lost, for six years, for a total of 225% of their loss per student. The state is trying to give the districts time to adjust to a decreased enrollment. (2) She also feels that, like all charter public schools, BART is highly accountable to the state and is therefore offering a choice of good quality education but a different kind, to families that might not otherwise have a choice.
“Fundamentally, charter schools are asking the public to shift the emphasis about school choice from communities, to parents. I stand behind the idea that, as a society, we have to think about how we impact the future. We have to think about all kids, not just our own or the majority in the wealthier, more educated towns and suburbs. Plus, we also have to think about those kids in the wealthier, more educated towns and suburbs for whom the district school isn’t the right answer. There’s this whole swath of kids who need a different approach.”
[Julia Bowen has a background in business management as well as education. She worked at the Monitor Group, an international consulting company headquartered in Cambridge, MA, where she consulted to clients in the US and Europe. Prior to joining the founding BART team, she was a math teacher at Mount Greylock Regional High School. In addition to her work at BART, Ms. Bowen has served on a number of local and statewide boards, supporting k-12 education broadly and charter schools specifically. She is also on the board of Lever, an entrepreneurship center in North Adams, and has served on the board of the Northern Berkshire United Way. She has a B.A. in Mathematics from Dartmouth College.]