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How did a western Mass. charter school with an ambitious social justice mission fail?

In this file photo from June 2021, unionized staff from the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School and their allies picket in front of the Chicopee, Massachusetts, school.
Dusty Christensen
Daily Hampshire Gazette / gazettenet.com
In this file photo from June 2021, unionized staff from the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School and their allies picket in front of the Chicopee, Massachusetts, school.

The Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Chicopee, Massachusetts, is scheduled to close at the end of this month.

Named after an acclaimed Brazilian educator, the school began in Holyoke as an alternative to an underperforming school system that was eventually placed in state receivership.

Aprell May Munford is a reporter with The Republican newspaper who wrote about the school's ambitious goals and its eventual collapse.

Aprell May Munford, The Republican: The school opened in Holyoke in 2013 by Robert Brick and Ljuba Marsh. Their mission was to provide a social justice curriculum that would give students a strong academic foundation, a strong social awareness, and inspire them to be active and effective citizens.

Kari Njiiri, NEPM: So what were the problems that led to the demise of the school?

The No. 1 reason was under-enrollment and academic success. However, the problems began with the non-renewal of the lease. The charter was specifically to be located in Holyoke — that moved to Chicopee. Other issues was high leadership turnover, enrollment inflation, financial oversight, mismanagement, and a lack of evidence for academic success, which led to student and staff attrition.

You mentioned enrollment inflation. What is that?

So, the school was reported, from 2015 through the duration, to over-project how many students were enrolled. Now that's important because schools are paid per pupil. And so, if there is 500 students reported, but there's really only 270 students, you could see where the financial issues would come into play.

The school was designed to have how many?

Maximum enrollment when the charter opened was to be at 500. They have never met that maximum. And, in fact, only exceeded 300 twice.

So the lack of enrollment contributed to the lack of funds that came into the school.


 Also, the high turnover among the leadership.

The high turnover among leadership, starting with the founders. Robert Brick said he left in 2016 and from there on, the high turnover in the executive positions caused school instability.

What was the reaction from students you talked to about the closure?

It was mixed. While some students feel like they have gotten the social justice curriculum — one becoming a lawyer and one becoming a veterinarian — some of the juniors and the underclassmen were concerned about entering big schools with not much of an education, in their words.

Because some of them now have to transfer to other schools, the public schools.


Any lessons that can be taken away from this closure?

I think one big takeaway for me is that the social justice mission is still good. Everyone I spoke to still believes in the mission. But for school success, what needs to happen is strong and stable structured leadership, accountability, and a positive working environment.

That was one of the complaints that teachers had?

It was. The last leadership just clashed with the union, and teachers thought retaliation for speaking up about what they believed to be civil rights and special needs violations.

The most important thing is that the structure throughout the entire duration of the charter was rocky. One important thing that stuck out to me that one of the students told me is that they said, "We're not dumb." They just needed more accountability and more structure from the people who were in charge.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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