SPRINGFIELD — In a visit to Western Massachusetts aimed at boosting the soon-to-open Phoenix Charter Academy High School in Springfield, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker spent part of the morning touring another charter school in the city.
Veritas Preparatory Charter School on Pine Street, which is in its second year of operations, welcomed Baker, who spent time talking with students, visiting classrooms and watching lessons in progress.
"The fact that they had the kids write down arguments for both sides of the issue they were going to debate, let them pick a side and then debate with one another – that is the way you fundamentally help kids process information and think about problems," Baker said in reference to a social studies class that was discussing thecaste system. "The kids we talked to really love being here, despite the long school day."
Veritas students arrive at 7:30 a.m. and are dismissed at 4:30 p.m. each day, with the exception of Friday when the school day ends at 1 p.m. Average class size is 27 students, each of which is called an advisory named after various colleges and universities attended by the teacher leading the group.
After just one year at the school, Vertias students saw significant improvements on the state's Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test. According to information provided by the school, while 61 percent were deemed "not proficient" in the English language arts test prior to entering Veritas, that number dropped to 27 percent one year later. In math, the margin was cut from 78 percent deemed "not proficient" to 44 percent.
Unlike Veritas Prep, which at full capacity in the 2015-16 school year will have 324 students in grades 5 through 8 in Springfield, the Phoenix school will serve students ages 14-22 from Springfield, Chicopee and Holyoke. The closed-door meeting this morning was between the Phoenix Network Board of Trustees, which oversees two schools similar to the Springfield school, and the philanthropic Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation.
"I've been involved with the Phoenix school for two to three years. They're taking kids on the edge of leaving the system or who have already dropped out, and pulling them back in refocusing them, motivating them and re-engaging them," Baker said. "The first school was in Chelsea and the second is in Lawrence. The third will be right here in Springfield."
The state Elementary and Secondary Education Board approved the Phoenix charter school in February, and it is expected to open in fall 2014. Unlike traditional high schools, the Phoenix charter school will feature eight-hour days, a child-care center for teen parents' children, which also doubles as a pre-school of sorts, and a three-level system of graduation.
Rather than being divided into traditional classes, students at Phoenix will be grouped according to skill level, with the aim of preparing each young person for college. It is expected to serve around 125 students in its first year, with enrollment expected to double within a few years.
And just as the Phoenix Charter Academy High School prepares to open in Western Massachusetts, Baker will be in the dog days of his second gubernatorial run, following his six-point loss to Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick in 2010. Baker, the former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and a past cabinet member in two state Republican administrations, said that the campaign stop was reflective of his renewed campaign's focus on education.
"I plan on spending a lot of time talking about how we need to close the achievement gap in the state. We've made progress in the past 20 years, but the fact is that we can do better," Baker said. "Education, job-creation and development, and community building are the fundamental components of my campaign this time around. Education in cities is the great equalizer and the big way up to something better. That's why I'm going to visit a lot of schools and try to learn from those trips and ask as many questions as I can. I want to find out what works and how we can replicate things in other settings and other environments."
Baker is the sole Republican candidate in the state's 2014 gubernatorial campaign. Several Democrats are vying for their party's nomination, and there are currently two independent candidates hoping to win over the majority of the state's enrolled voters who no longer consider themselves a member of either major political party.
The primary election will take place Sept. 16, with the general election coming on Nov. 4.