Somerville Families Unite to Resist Planned Charter

A small part of the crowd that gathered for the Somerville charter school hearing, 90% in opposition. (Photo by Andrew Firestone)

by Alain Jehlen

The fastest and most extensive community organizing drive that Somerville has seen in many years brought some 300 parents and community members to the Somerville High School auditorium Dec. 14 to oppose a proposed new charter school.

The proposal for a “Somerville Progressive Charter School” became widely known just three weeks before the hearing, and parents from every corner of the city mobilized to stop it, quickly creating a new group called Progress Together. (Full disclosure: I’m a member.)

State Education Secretary Paul Reville and other state officials got an earful when about 90%  of the audience stood and cheered parent Ruth Ronen’s call to register their opposition.

The parent organizers say the proposed school would torpedo efforts to improve education for all Somerville children. It would drain as much as one tenth of the city’s school budget, forcing closure of an elementary school and other destructive cuts.

“I want to see changes and improvements to our schools that will lift all ships,” said Lance Davis, father of a girl in first grade. “This proposal simply won’t do that.” Christianna Morgan, who has a son in first grade and a daughter in fourth grade, said each school has excellent programs. “Kennedy [School] kids do History Day, there’s Nature’s Classroom at the Healey—let’s expand these best practices to other schools, rather than creating another school.”

Somerville, with 68% low-income students and 18% not yet fluent in English, was vulnerable to a new charter school because its MCAS scores are in the bottom 10% statewide. A 2010 state law raised the limit on charter school spending for districts in that category if charter operators can make the case that they would raise the achievement of students who now score low. The new Somerville charter school would offer instruction for English language learners (ELLs), as required of all schools under current state law.

The proposal comes from a group of parents who want progressive education in the tradition of John Dewey — learning by doing, lots of projects, very little lecturing.

Members of Progress Together at the standing-room-only Somerville charter school hearing. (Photo by Gordon Wong)

That approach characterized a Somerville program called CHOICE, which until this year made up two thirds of one of the city’s schools. The School Committee decided last year to merge CHOICE with the other classrooms but to keep the progressive approach. Some CHOICE parents don’t believe the promise will be kept, and the new charter school would give them an option they could control.

Speakers against the charter proposal said the ELL component was added just to comply with the new state law. Parents and teachers argued that the district schools already offer better ELL programs than what is described in the proposal.

Somerville has a range of programs for ELLs, including two-way bilingual immersion.

But some charter supporters told of incidents in which teachers showed they had low expectations for ELLs.

Current state law gives the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education authority to approve new charter schools, not the community in which the school would be placed. Ultimately, however, districts must fund charter schools, though they are administered by independent boards, not local school boards.

Progress Together organizers say the district schools have plenty of room for improvement, but they want to the make the School Department more responsive, not split off one group of students.

Many immigrants who signed up to speak against the proposal never got the chance because the speakers’ list was long and the hearing was short. Afterwards, some of them sent an angry letter to the board. “We don’t need another state agency imposing a new solution on us without first even listening to our experiences and needs,” they said.

Much of the debate has been on an email group called Somerville-4-Schools whose message archives are public at

The pro-charter school group website is at
Progress Together is at

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