Alternative school gives teens second chance at success

SALEM, Mass. (AP) — By the time Randalee Acosta arrived at the New Liberty Charter School halfway through the 2015-16 school year, she had already dropped out of school twice.

The first time, Acosta was living with her grandmother in New York City and said she just wasn’t focused on school. She moved to Salem to live with her cousin and enrolled at Salem High School, but didn’t like being known as the new kid from New York.

When a school administrator reached out to Acosta and told her about the school for at-risk students run out of the second floor of the Museum Place Mall, Acosta, now 19, decided to give it one more try.

On June 22, she’ll be one of 12 students to graduate from what is now known as the New Liberty Innovation School. The day will be one of celebration for the students and their families — and a hopeful sign that the school, after years of high dropout rates, can meet its mission of helping struggling students.

“If it wasn’t for this school, I wouldn’t be graduating,” Acosta said.

The school was created in 2011 as the Salem Community Charter School, an alternative school for Salem High students who had dropped out or were at risk of dropping out. Despite in-house programs designed to help at-risk students, Salem High’s dropout rate was 4.3 percent, compared to the state average of 2.9 percent.

School officials were also worried about proposals by outside groups to open charter schools in Salem for at-risk students, which would have drained state funds and removed local control.

“Clearly a new approach is needed to meet the needs of these students,” Salem officials wrote in their application to the state to form their own charter school. “The consequences of doing nothing will be disastrous.”

The state approved the new school as a Horace Mann charter school, meaning it would be run by a board of trustees independently of the School Committee, with control of the curriculum, budget and teaching staff. The school would be funded by the Salem school district, with a budget of about $1 million per year.

The school opened in 2011 in a cramped space next to a haunted house in the Museum Place Mall, with an enrollment of about 50 students.

Many of the students faced what school officials called “formidable external obstacles,” including homelessness, criminal involvement, family problems, and poverty. The school provided counseling, internships, work assignments and community-based programs in an attempt to address the students’ individualized personal and academic needs.

But in 2013, after two years of operation, the school was placed “on conditions” by then-Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester. Chester said the school had not secured a “safe and adequate facility” and that students were “chronically absent.”

The concern about the facility was resolved when the school moved to a larger space on the second floor of the mall. School officials also promised to implement a new attendance system.

The dropout rate, however, continued to rise every year. Last year 33 of its 53 students left the school — a 62 percent dropout rate, the second highest in the state, according to Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education figures.

Salem Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Margaret Marotta, who was on the advisory committee that helped start Salem Community Charter School, said the school had a liberal “open campus” policy that allowed students flexibility — in some cases, too much flexibility — with their schedule. Staff members were also focused on providing support for the students with their personal struggles, she said.

“The mindset was not always on instruction,” she said. “We weren’t doing that as well as we could.”

At the same time, the dropout rate at Salem High School was declining — a fact that school officials cited in publicizing the school’s improvement. Part of the reason that Salem High’s dropout rate declined, however, is that many of the at-risk students were moved to New Liberty, whose dropouts don’t count against Salem High.

If the two schools’ dropout rate were combined, it would be 4.5 percent — much higher than the 1.2 percent cited by Superintendent Margarita Ruiz as Salem High’s dropout rate, which she called a “bright spot” and “lower than the state average” in the most recent issue of Education Now.

School officials said the 4.5 percent number is not an accurate combined dropout rate because not all of the New Liberty dropouts were former Salem High students. But they did not provide what they consider the accurate number.

Ruiz, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.

In July 2016, Ruiz notified the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education that New Liberty’s trustees had decided to convert the school from a charter school to an innovation school. The change was approved by the school’s teachers and by the Salem School Committee.

Under the innovation model, New Liberty moved back under the control of the superintendent rather than the board of trustees, and the School Committee has a say in how the budget is spent.

The school also began accepting younger students (starting at age 14), as well as students from outside of Salem, and instituted more on-line and off-site instruction, including work and internships.

Marotta said the school has tightened up its attendance policies, making students more accountable for their whereabouts. If students who are over 18 miss school because of work, which they are allowed to do, they must bring in their pay stubs to verify they were working.

“Kids here need some freedom and acknowledgement that they’re adult-like in many ways,” Marotta said. “But they are still kids.”

The school also parted ways with its founding principal, Jessica Yurwitz, and hired Jennifer Winsor, the former director of supervision and evaluation at Charlestown High School, as the new principal.

Winsor said the school has instituted a more rigorous curriculum and created a “clear road map to graduation” for students. The school has a competency-based curriculum, which allows students to work at their own pace to reach competency in 25 social, emotional and workplace skills through a combination of coursework and life experiences.

Acosta, the student, said one of the most useful courses was the “I Am Sensible” competency, in which students learn where they can go for help regarding their health, including, for example, if they’re pregnant. To show what they’ve learned, students are required to visit various locations in person, such as Health Quarters, which provides counseling related to sexual and reproductive health.

“It teaches you how to make good decisions,” Acosta said.

Mayor Kim Driscoll said the changes at New Liberty are already showing positive results. The 12 students graduating this year are the most ever for the school, she said.

“This school literally saves kids’ lives,” Driscoll said.

“This school really has a place in Salem,” Marotta said. “We realize it wasn’t working to its capacity and we’re willing to invest in that change.”

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