As it marks its 10th anniversary in New Bedford, by almost any measure, Alma del Mar Charter Schools have been a success.

And while some leaders of the city’s public school district continue to express concerns that that success has come at the expense of New Bedford’s public district, it is hard to argue with parents about the continued popularity of the now two-campus charter system.

For the current school year, an impressive 613 parents applied for their children to be enrolled throughout Alma’s K-8 grades, with 90 of 176 applicants winning lottery spots in the big kindergarten entry level, and 100 of 136 applicants winning a spot in the big sixth-grade lottery for entry. The school’s second campus will consist of roughly twice as many middle-school level students as lower grades.

In its first decade, the school has grown from 120 students in grades K-2 located at the then-recently closed Sarah D. Ottiwell district school in the North End to some 943 students in grades K-8 at two separate campuses, the second named after Frederick Douglass, the nation’s pre-eminent African-American abolitionist, who initially lived in the city after he escaped slavery.

Alma del Mar will soon account for 1,000 students, compared to the 12,800 students in the district system.

By January, Alma will also have built two entirely new school buildings, its original Ottiwell campus on Belleville Avenue and a second $24 million Douglass campus on Church Street. Both are located in the city’s North End. 

The new Frederick Douglass campus is under construction on Church Street in New Bedford’s North End. Credit: Jack Spillane

Alma students — perhaps somewhat euphemistically called “scholars,” in accordance with the system’s culture — have overall scored markedly better on the state’s annual assessment (MCAS) tests than New Bedford students. They also score competitively with the state as a whole, although executive director Will Gardner acknowledges they fell off more steeply than the state average did during the remote learning year of the pandemic, especially in math. 

For the last year measured before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alma’s K-8 average for English Language Arts was at 49% “meets or exceeds expectations” while the state in the same category was at 52%. The New Bedford district was at just 34%. For math that year, the Alma numbers exceeded the state, with 54% vs. 49% meeting or exceeding expectations, while the New Bedford district’s number was 32%.

There are individual schools in the New Bedford District, such as the nationally recognized Congdon Elementary School in the South End, that have outperformed Alma del Mar in specific categories.


Comparing MCAS results

These charts compare Alma del Mar Charter Schools’ MCAS scores for  2019 (pre-COVID) and 2021 (post-COVID) with the New Bedford District and the state average. Note: There was no MCAS in 2020 due to the pandemic.

By way of comparison, the city’s other successful charter school — Global Learning Charter Public Schools — scored at the 42% level for meeting or exceeding expectations in English Language Arts in 2019 vs. the state’s 52%. Global Learning scored 36% in math vs. the state’s 49%.

It is important to note that it is not an apples-to-apples comparison, as Global Learning is a grade 5-12 school system while Alma is K-8. 

Global Learning also broke ground on a big expansion this year, announcing it will reconfigure the former convent at St. Anthony’s Parish in the North End into an $8.5 million STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) building to go along with its adjacent classroom building in the former St. Anthony School.

“We just had a really dedicated founding crew that brought a lot of energy and ideas to what they wanted to see in this new school, alongside families who were really taking a leap of faith when we first opened, to try an entirely new K-8 school.”

Will Gardner, Alma del Mar executive director

Not every public charter school has been a success in New Bedford. 

City on a Hill, a 9-12 charter high school located in the downtown, closed at the end of the 2019-2020 school year after an increasingly disastrous six-year run in the city. 

Between its fifth and sixth years the enrollment at City on a Hill plummeted by a full third, and the chair of its board of trustees acknowledged the school had had trouble with both teacher and principal retention, as well as a poor academic performance.

When it comes to Alma, there is no doubt that a large part of its success is due to Will Gardner, its energetic and visionary director.

“I think it started with Will’s passion and vision for taking under-served students,” said Jan Baptist, the chair of Alma’s Board of Trustees since 2015. She said she has marveled at Gardner’s willingness from the beginning to go door to door in search of students in the city’s urban neighborhoods.

“He believes that expectations should be high,” she said. “We don’t blame the scholars; we recognize those needs and we meet those needs.”

For Gardner’s part, he emphasizes the group effort in everything about Alma — and not just the founders, but also the families who wanted a different type of school than was available in the district.

“We just had a really dedicated founding crew that brought a lot of energy and ideas to what they wanted to see in this new school, alongside families who were really taking a leap of faith when we first opened, to try an entirely new K-8 school,” Gardner said.

Columnist Jack Spillane speaks with Alma del Mar Executive Director Will Gardner as the charter school marks 10 years in New Bedford.

Alma is committed to the K-8 model, an implicit criticism of the three large New Bedford middle schools (6-8 grades) that the city built two decades ago, and the three big junior high schools (7-9 grades) that preceded that for a half-century.  “I think Alma was really something that just came out of a need we saw at the time for a really strong K-8 school,” Gardner said.

Mayor Jon Mitchell supported Alma’s initial opening as a laboratory school that could explore curriculum and methods not allowed in the public schools, which are largely governed by teacher-union contracts. But he has since opposed the growth of charters in New Bedford, developing into what he sees as an alternative school system that does not accept the special-education students with the highest levels of disabilities. He also says the growth of charters in New Bedford toward the state’s 18% cap for lowest-performing school districts will endanger state funding that the property tax-poor community needs for wraparound services for students with the biggest learning and language challenges.

Some 80% of the city’s budget goes to personnel — union-bargained health care and state-mandated pension costs — leaving educational support services vulnerable, Mitchell said.

“My primary purpose is not to burden the district with more charter schools,” he said, in opposing the charters growth.

A Fall River group, the Innovators Charter School, announced this summer that it will apply to the state to run a regional charter school for Fall River and New Bedford, but the majority of the available charter seats will be in New Bedford, according to the state’s charter school cap.

“My primary purpose is not to burden the district with more charter schools.”

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell

Gardner disputes the “sticky idea” that the charters drain money from the district schools, pointing out that the charters take students out of the district system and that the money simply follows the students. The state, however, has not lived up to its reimbursement commitment for charter schools, especially for multiple years after a school has been established.

Gardner refers to the state reimbursements (the Student Opportunity Act) which he says was enacted in part through the efforts of the charter school association. “So that’s a lot of money for kids that are no longer being served in the district to allow for the district to adjust financially,” he said.

As far as the criticism that charters leave the most difficult special-education students to the district, Alma, on its website, points to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education numbers, which show the overall district and charter students with disabilities are comparable to New Bedford. The website does not address the variety of students that are on the continuum of special education, from low needs to very high needs. 

According to DESE, 43% of Alma students last year spoke a first language other than English compared with 40% in the city. Alma’s percentage of ELL students was 24% vs. New Bedford’s 26%. Alma had 17% of students with disabilities vs. 22% for the New Bedford district. A total of 82% of Alma students were high-needs students vs. 84% in the city; and 66% of Alma students were economically disadvantaged vs. 74% in the city.

“I think we’ve always done a great job of serving a diverse population, diverse in terms of abilities, diverse in terms of backgrounds,” Gardner said.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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