Emma Stellman, chief academic officer at the Prospect Hill Academy Charter School, speaks at Monday’s roundtable with city councillors and School Committee members. (Photo: John Hawkinson)

Emma Stellman, chief academic officer at the Prospect Hill Academy Charter School, speaks at Monday’s roundtable with city councillors and School Committee members. (Photo: John Hawkinson)

It took until nearly the end of a two-hour roundtable on charter schools for anyone to bring up the heated climate in which the schools operate – especially with a ballot question coming up Nov. 8 that might raise the cap on how many operate in the state and send millions more in municipal dollars outside public school districts annually.

The public school district was estimated to pay out $11.2 million last school year for the 489 student residents going to charter schools, or an average $23,775 per student. The number of students leaving for charter schools is up from 401 in the 2012-13 school year, while state reimbursement is down more than a half-million dollars.

City councillors, School Committee members and representatives of Cambridge’s charter schools entering City Hall on Monday even had to pass by a cluster of protesters holding “No on 2” signs, stating their opposition to allowing more charter schools to open.

But much of the conversation was a polite exchange of best practices, and even when Mayor E. Denise Simmons brought up “the elephant in the room,” it was to give anecdotal mention of reasons Cambridge parents might opt to send their kids to a charter school instead of a public school … or might do the reverse.

The other elephant

More than 20 minutes later, as the untelevised roundtable was winding up, Emma Stellman, chief academic officer at the Prospect Hill Academy Charter School, segued from a response about lowering the number of student suspensions.

“This, I guess, is another other elephant in the room, and I will name it: It hasn’t always been – or often, or almost ever – a friendly environment for charter schools,” Stellman said. “I’m going to try not to get emotional about it, but I have felt like we’ve been boxed out, and we have been slandered and we have been marginalized as schools. We have had a lot of people excluding us. And when I say us, I’m talking about our children, the children we serve. For me it’s not about what people have done to Emma Stellman, it’s about having access – doors closed actively to our kids, and it’s felt very painful.”

“If I could ask for anything of you, Mayor Simmons, I really wish that we could restore this relationship,” Stellman said, noting that the roundtable began with the sharing of ideas about narrowing the persistent achievement gap of academic success that exists largely between whites and asians and, on the lower-achieving side, other people of color. “I’m asking if there’s something we can do to move beyond the vitriol and get to the heart of this work.”

After the roundtable, Stellman expanded on her answer to explain that charter school kids suffered from a lack of access to facilities such as a cafeteria and gymnasium – things Simmons had also mentioned, along with intramural sports and other opportunities available in the bigger public school district, as a cause for parents to withdraw their children from charter schools.

But charter school students weren’t targeted for criticism or abuse, Stellman said, and the mayor – while acknowledging that schools might have dragged their feet sending paperwork one direction or another, and “shame on anyone who participates in that” – said she’d hoped she’d set the right tone at the roundtable and affirmed that “the fight is not the kids, and it’s not the families.”

The right tone

A “No on 2” sticking opposing the coming of more charter schools lays outside Sullivan Chamber during Monday’s charter school roundtable. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A “No on 2” sticking opposing the coming of more charter schools lays outside Sullivan Chamber during Monday’s roundtable. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Angela Allen, head of school at the academy, said Simmons had set the right tone, although before coming “we weren’t sure” how the roundtable agenda would be pursued once the officials sat down and faced each other.

In addition to Prospect Hill, the Community Charter School of Cambridge and the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School also sent representatives to the roundtable.

There was wide agreement a good foundation had been laid for collaboration, and some officials spotted among the best practices of the charter schools – by law, the schools are required to share them – some that Cambridge Public Schools could adopt to engage their own families.

After repeated examples from charter school officials about their intense involvement in the lives of students and families, even after-hours and unpaid, councillor Nadeem Mazen suggested the public school district could step up on simply hosting more parent nights. “I can’t abide a $180 million budget if we’re not going to do the basics,” Mazen said, citing parents in his own social circles who complained of lacking that level of engagement. The School Committee’s long-serving vice chairman, Fred Fantini, responded that the roundtable was lacking school employees who could testify to their own home engagement practices, including principals who made home visits.

Craig Kelley, a councillor who often has sharp critiques and questions about charter schools, was mostly muted at the roundtable, but warned Mazen and others considering adoption of best practices from the far smaller, more nimble charter schools that “there is no low-hanging fruit.” Any significant change in the district, he cautioned, would take a lot of work and money. (Ali Nomani, principal of the high school at the Community Charter School, disagreed, saying there would be many eager to take on the work “with or without compensation.”)

“This is not a one-and-done,” Simmons said, proposing similar meetings could take place annually or twice a year. “It’s going to take work.”