Charter school advocates plan for 2006 opening

MASON – Organizers expect the Pathways Community Charter School to open somewhere in the fall of 2006.

Since Mason is in the process of considering changes in its education program, resident Chris Balch would like to see it there.

“We are trying not to link it with the withdrawal (of Mason from Mascenic Regional); we would be proposing the school without the withdrawal. If the state approves us, we are good to go,” Balch told about a dozen people at a meeting on Saturday morning. But in a few years, he added, under the terms of No Child Left Behind, “School districts have to provide choices for all students.”

He and co-developer Beth Frost of Hancock outlined the goals and missions of the proposed school. Also on hand were four college students who formerly attended Souhegan High School, where Balch now teaches. All of the students were involved in the Wild Quest Program of extended learning experiences. Three of the students now plan to become teachers after being inspired by the program. They all spoke highly of their experiences.

Balch was involved with Wild Quest, and is now adviser of senior projects at Souhegan. He said he and Frost represent about 50 years of education experience.

Frost teaches at Great Brooks Middle School in Antrim, where she has an extended learning program, projects outside the classroom “to explore the passions of the students,” she said.

Pathways is conceived as a community school based on experiential education. Its mission is founded on the concept of honor and wonder, Frost said.

“We want students to become confident, independent learners, critical thinkers and active learners who understand the world and environmental stewardship, and learn to live healthy, productive and sustainable lives,” she said.

The goal is to provide a safe, wholesome learning environment with a personalized learning program, all with no impact on the taxpayer. Funding is through the state, grants and private means.

Balch used an example of the Monadnock Region to illustrate the integrated learning system: using the mountain and surrounding area to involve English, arts and music, history and social studies, science and math, wellness, and service components based on community needs.

“This (type of education) really works,” he said. “Kids wake up wanting to go to school.”

Balch and Frost applied for, and received, a planning grant from the Josiah Bartlett Foundation and the state Department of Education.

The next step, he said, “is to determine the needs of the community. We will create a pathway, but the community must determine where it goes.”

That involves writing a school charter with goals and mission, creating a board of directors and writing a grant proposal to the state for up to $300,000 to establish the school.

“A charter school is a public school designed around a mission,” Balch said. “Charter schools fail when they don’t follow their mission. They are held (by the state) to a high standard of accountability.”

He said they had talked with the teachers at the Mason school about “what makes their school special. Mason has a great track record in state tests.

“We want to build on that,” he said.

In answer to questions, Balch said they have considered flexible scheduling and starting the school day later for high school students as some authorities have suggested. The school would begin with grades seven and eight and have a final capacity of 120-150 students. If the school is affiliated with Mason, it will require a vote of the town, and Mason students would get first chance at spaces.

A New Ipswich resident said the idea “sounds too good to be true,” and asked about the hurdles that would prevent it from happening.

“A board of directors that doesn’t agree with the teachers,” Balch said, and noted incoming Gov. John Lynch “is not a big supporter of charter schools.”

He added, “We want to be a good college-preparatory school. We do have to meet state standards.”

He expects to propose a warrant article for Town Meeting asking the voters to approve the investigation of a charter school in town.

“If the town doesn’t withdraw (from Mascenic), the charter school can still be opened,” he said.