At 2 new charter schools, a chance for a fresh start

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / August 28, 2011

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Going back to school will provide new opportunities for students attending charter schools being launched in Chelsea and Salem.

Excel Academy Charter School-Chelsea opened its doors last Tuesday, while the Salem Community Charter School is preparing to welcome students Sept. 8.

The schools are among 16 new charters - independent public schools - approved in February by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Nine of the new schools are opening this fall, with seven others - three in this region - scheduled to start in the 2012-13 school year.

Excel-Chelsea is chartered as a fifth- to eighth-grade middle school that at full capacity will serve 224 students. Located in leased space in a Second Street building, it begins this year with 56 fifth-grade students. The school is scheduled to grow by a grade each year.

The new Chelsea school is operated by Excel Academies, the organization that runs the existing Excel Academy Charter School-East Boston, an eight-year-old regional fifth- to eighth-grade school that also enrolls students from Chelsea.

The Salem Community Charter School is a ninth- to 12th-grade high school that at full capacity will serve 125 students. Operating initially in leased space on the ground floor of the Museum Place mall in downtown Salem, the school will serve 50 students this year.

The new Salem school is a Horace Mann charter, which unlike an autonomous Commonwealth charter school such as Excel-Chelsea, was developed with the involvement of the local school district, which also helped fund it.

Officials from the new schools said they were thrilled to see them get underway.

“We have so much excitement,’’ said Jessica Yurwitz, principal of the Salem Community Charter School, which is designed to serve students ages 16 to 23 who have dropped out of school or are at risk of doing so.

Among the innovative practices the school will use to serve its target population - about 75 percent of the students will be low-income - is to operate without grade levels.

Students advance toward a diploma based on assessments of their academic, social, and emotional competency, and their participation in a work-study program.

The school also will allow students to dictate “how and when they learn best’’ and follow an individualized approach in meeting their needs, Yurwitz said.

For example, students who are competent in math but weak in reading and writing could take extra courses or targeted tutoring. Students who need it may receive extra help learning how to mediate conflict.

“Our students are adults,’’ Yurwitz said, “and many are independent adults not even living with their parents. Some are parents themselves. So I see this program as more than just an academic transition to college and career, but a social transition to adulthood.’’

Part of that effort also involves motivating students to act as leaders. This summer, about 15 of the incoming students have actively participated in preparations for the new school, including designing the school space and hiring the staff.

“It’s an opportunity to be innovative in a different way, in an effort to tackle the dropout rate,’’ said Stephen Russell, Salem’s new school superintendent. “And we’ve been fortunate to hire some very enthusiastic, committed staff. . . . I’m very optimistic about the good things they are going to be able to do for our students.’’

Like the existing Excel-East Boston school, the new Excel-Chelsea will serve a mostly low-income Latino population.

The mission is the same: to prepare students for success in high school and college regardless of their academic levels when they arrive, said Stephanie Morgan, a former teacher and administrator of the East Boston school who is now the Chelsea principal.

“It’s incredibly exciting,’’ she said. “Having worked at the Boston school for four years, it’s so exciting to be able to work with students in a community where they are in such need of having options for schools to go to, and providing them with a great option.’’

While Chelsea students can still attend the East Boston school, Excel Academies opted to also open the Chelsea school.

“We feel a real sense of opportunity and obligation to reach a lot more students in the Boston area who could benefit from an Excel education,’’ said Dai Ellis, chief executive officer of Excel Academies.

The new Chelsea school will follow the same approach as Excel-East Boston.

“It really starts with high expectations,’’ Ellis said. “When students walked into school this week, we started to have them internalize the notion that they can go to college.’’

Also key to the school’s approach is an emphasis on individualized instruction, which means providing extra tutoring for students who need it.

“We’re just trying to make sure teaching is delivered to them in a way that they can absorb,’’ Ellis said. “That is really going to stretch their minds relative to where they are academically.’’