Prospective founders of schools look for likeminded parents to part from district
Many parents in Cambridge are concerned with how well public education serves their children, especially with the upheaval of recent years, but two have taken steps to open their own, separate schools: Brooke Newman is interested in opening a “democracy” school inspired by her alma mater, the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham; the more business-minded Wojciech Szczerba sees a “market” for language immersion.
“Parents of young children don’t want to raise their children,” Szczerba said. “Parents in the 21st century want to cultivate them.” Szczerba, trained as a geophysicist in his native Poland, where the education system is “top-down,” is a former documentarian who has taken on the role of entrepreneur, claiming projects in such varied fields as renewable energy, information technology and television.
Szczerba’s current project is starting a private Mandarin Chinese and Spanish immersion school wherever he can find a building that can accommodate what he envisions as a school community built up from an initial group of kindergarteners in at least four classrooms. Szczerba sees the school ultimately serving grades K-8, with the ratio of the target language to English decreasing as the grade level and curriculum content changes. Szczerba also hopes eventually for an endowment and the capacity to offer scholarships, “although never full scholarships, because you have to have something invested.”
By “cultivate” Szczerba means grooming or providing kids the advantages to compete in an increasingly global economy. “Eighty percent of the parents I talk to mention [science, technology, engineering and math education], especially in New England,” he says. “Perhaps that is the influence of Harvard and MIT. But I believe that the arts too are essential.” In addition to being a total immersion kindergarten, his planned K-8 curriculum would emphasize elements of STEAM as well as project-based learning, and students would not be evaluated by standardized tests such as MCAS.
Still, language acquisition in either Mandarin Chinese or Spanish is key to Szczerba’s proposal. There are private schools in the Boston area where students learn primarily in languages other than English – at the International School of Boston in Cambridge, students learn in French, and there’s a German School in Boston. But Szczerba sees a gap. Massachusetts has 15 language immersion schools, none of them private, while Utah has 58 and Minnesota has 50, according to 2011 data from the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.
Szczerba’s ideas have grown out of his experience in the past four years as parent of a child in the Chinese Mandarin program at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. public school. He was one of the parents who advocated keeping the immersion program going beyond the second grade, claiming that in the future, “monolinguacy will be something close to illiteracy.”
But a promise for world language across the elementary schools was shelved as Cambridge’s “Innovation Agenda” transformed a dozen JK-8 schools into the current configuration of 11 grade schools, whose students now enter one of four middle or “upper school” campuses for grades 6-8. (The 12th school, Amigos, still offers JK-8 dual immersion in Spanish and English, although it moved to Upton Street from Putnam Avenue.)
Private vs. charter school
Why a private school and not a charter school? Szczerba rolled his eyes and mentioned the mountains of paperwork they required. Private-school paperwork is lighter in comparison, but Massachusetts “is unusual in that the decision to give a license to open a private school is not by state but relies on the local school committee. The committee can refuse to give the license and there is no appeal,” Szczerba said. But in his reading of the law there is really no grounds for not approving a private school once issues such as safety and building codes are worked out.
The most likely location for such a venture is an existing school building, but inflated real estate costs makes Somerville or Watertown more likely than Cambridge. Szczerba is not offering details about the extent of funding, political support or even whether he has a core group of students, but he said he has received many expressions of interest and will make a decision by the end of the month whether to proceed with the plan to open in September 2014.
Fred Fantini, vice chairman of the School Committee, said he suspects Szczerba’s school may find a home in the area – but is also optimistic about the future of language immersion in the public school district.
While private school initiatives may not compete directly for the same student population whose parents worry about the quality of education in the district, charter school initiatives may be another story. “Anyone can start a school,” Fantini said, “and Cambridge is an inviting prospect. And private schools work for those who can afford them, but we spend $9 million a year for charter schools.”
“Starting a new charter school in Cambridge will put pressure on the three that are here,” Fantini said, referring to the Community Charter School of Cambridge, Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School and Prospect Hill Academy Charter School.
The Joan Rubin School
Newman declined to be interviewed to give an update on her school project, saying she has been overwhelmed by responses to previous articles about the school.
The school, proposed publicly last summer, is to be called The Joan Rubin School after the founder of the school by which it is inspired. School materials call it a nonprofit, independent day school for children ages 5 to 19 that will open in 2015 in a Greater Boston location that includes “accessibility to public transportation, a vibrant, diverse and safe neighborhood, and a local community that accepts our philosophy, pedagogy, and will respect our students’ freedom.” Newman told the Metro newspaper that potential locations included Cambridge, Somerville, Boston, Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. (A similar-sounding Bay State Learning Cooperative reported Saturday that it could be renting space in Dedham as soon as April.)
A sliding-scale tuition has not been set.
“The Joan Rubin School will have no mandated curriculum, no grades and no testing,” according to school materials. “The day-to-day operations and the laws of the school will be determined through a participatory democratic process that extends voting rights to students and staff.”
The school will observe only federal holidays, meaning there will be no designated summer vacation, but students must attend the 180 days and 900 hours of learning time required by the state.
This post was updated Jan. 22, 2013, to remove an incorrect reference to The Joan Rubin School as a charter school and a quote from another media source that Newman deemed incorrect. The post was changed to say her proposed school was inspired by, but not modeled after, the Sudbury Valley School.