Duo to present overview of charter school proposal

MASON – The formation of a charter school in town has been brought up several times during the past year of discussions on Mason’s withdrawal from the Mascenic Regional School District.

Resident Chris Balch, an advocate of such a program, and his colleague Beth Frost will present an overview of a proposal to create a charter school in town at 10 a.m. Nov. 27, at Town Hall. They will outline their vision for the program, provide a rough timeline and have some students from a similar program available to speak about their perspectives as active learners.

Balch is the former director of the Wild Quest Education Project, a program that takes students to far-off or exotic places for firsthand learning experiences. He is an independent educational consultant and is the coordinator for senior projects at Souhegan High School in Amherst.

Frost lives in Hancock and is a teacher at Great Brook Middle School in Antrim.The two met while both were teaching at Souhegan High School.

“Philosophically, we are well aligned,” Balch said.

The reasons for a charter school at this time are many, Balch said. The town is considering changes, and the charter school – which could be called Pathways Community Charter School – is another option to consider.

“About 80 percent of our teaching is verbal,” meaning mostly lectures, Balch said. “We want to create a program that will get kids back into the community.”

The only option being offered to Mason residents is to pay tuition to send their children to school in another district. In a prepared statement, Balch notes that option “compounds some of the very issues that caused Mason to look elsewhere in the first place.”

In a tuition arrangement, Mason parents would have no representation on a school board and no say in educational or other programs. Students would have a longer bus ride and, should Middlesex Regional in Townsend, Mass., be chosen, Mason students would attend a program not aligned with the New Hampshire education frameworks.

Balch wrote that the Massachusetts program “is aimed solely at getting students through the MCAS test successfully.”

In addition, he wrote that larger schools suffer from a lack of personalization. Teachers don’t have the time to get to know each student personally.

This year, North Middlesex averages 347 students per grade, and Milford High School has about 200 per grade. Both schools are under consideration.

In contrast, Balch says, “Our students come from Mason Elementary, where there are less than 20 students per grade. Teachers know our children well, nurture them with true affection and work hard to personalize learning experiences for them.”

Last year, Balch noted, 94 percent of Mason students scored “proficient” or “advanced” in state mathematics tests.

Balch contends charter schools are independent, tuition-free, non-religious, highly accountable, cost-efficient public schools. They operate according to a charter that reflects the school’s mission and educational goals. They are schools of choice and don’t include special education, which remains a function of the School Administrative Unit.

Nine charter schools are scheduled to open across New Hampshire, with more being planned.

The Mason proposal would include grades 7-12 with a focus on general education and an emphasis on academic skill development and literacy, as well as college preparation. It would accommodate 120-150 students.

Its mission would be to “provide each student with the ability to be confident, independent thinkers; awaken each individual’s passion to understand the world around him or her; instill a commitment to better the community; develop each student’s understanding of the environmental stewardship; and provide the skills to lead healthy, productive lives.”

The goal is to continue the work begun at Mason Elementary, maintain the high standards for learning and level of individualization and demonstrate accomplishments through high standings in the state tests, Balch said.

“Research tells us that small schools work better,” Balch said. “There are almost endless opportunities for innovation.”

Balch has been awarded a $5,300 grant by the state for charter school planning.

“I’m not sure where this school will end up,” Balch said.

But he thinks Mason would be a good choice.