Makeshift Homes, Shopping Craigslist: Challenges For First-Year Charter Schools

Oct 22, 2015

At the first day of the school at the MicroSociety Academy Charter School last month, director Amy Bottomley talks to students.
Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR

Two new charter schools that opened this fall each have a unique philosophy toward education.

But the first few weeks for these new additions to the state’s school choice roster show just how bumpy the road to opening a charter school can be.

  At the MicroSociety Academy Charter School in Nashua, the first day of school is just wrapping up.

Students are gathered in the gymnasium, where first grade teacher Danielle Cormier helps break the ice.

"You’re going to find people that have the same favorite color. Go!” she says, as students spread out to find a group to join.

“I’m a little relieved. I’ve been working for the Board of Trustees since May, so it’s been a long time coming," says the school’s director, Amy Bottomley. Actually, I’m still in shock kids are here.”

She left an assistant principal position in Hollis to take this job.

So, what is a MicroSociety school?

“MicroSociety we like to say is bringing real world to learning. Students will have opportunities to write business plans, propose businesses and ventures, services, and they can become owners. They can hire managers. We have our own judicial system. We have our own currency.”

MicroSociety Academy Charter School had to open at St. Philip Greek Orthodox Church in Nashua, before moving to its permanent home this month.
Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR

But, the opening didn’t go as planned.

Bottomley’s in a makeshift office at the school’s temporary location: the Saint Philip Greek Orthodox Church.

She says renovations on the school’s permanent home – a former medical office building just down the road – weren’t finished in time for the start of the school year.

“The rooms are much smaller than we get into our permanent home. Our permanent home, the rooms are well over 700 square feet, and we’re in about a third of that right now. We don’t have a typical reception office area, but everyone is thrilled to have somewhere to start.

The school has since moved into its permanent location, and now has nearly 100 students. But for a new a charter school, this is what a typical opening looks like.

“Definitely the largest hurdle to opening a charter school would be finding an appropriate facility.”

Matt Southerton is director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools, a charter school advocacy group.

He works with groups looking to start charter schools.

“I’ll be honest, as a charter school advocate, the first year in a charter school is very difficult. You don’t just pull a public school out of the ether. You don’t say I want to start a public school and turn it on. It’s a really long, technical process that can take up to two or three years.”

Compass Classical Academy is another school that opened this fall, also in a temporary home: a former school in a building owned by St. Gabriel’s Parish in Franklin.

Outside, a large cross hangs alongside the charter school’s banner.

Compass Classical Academy will likely spend its first year in a temporary location: a building owned by St. Gabriel's Parish in Franklin.
Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR

“So these two classes, one is second and third combined, the other fourth and fifth combined," the school’s director Dan Bean says during a tour.

He explains the philosophy behind the school.

“The very nature of the curriculum itself, being such a literature-based program, is very much in line with the principles of classical education.”

He says the school could be in its temporary home through the rest of the school year.

In the meantime, the building is working out; because it’s a former school, there’s a gym, and a kitchen, though at the time, the school did not have a lunch program.

And Bean says lack of transportation has also been an issue.

“We’re actually aware of several students who were signed up from Laconia who when we finalized the agreement for us to start here, they informed us it was just too far, and so they dropped off.

“So it’s a limiting factor for your enrollment?

“It absolutely is.”

When a charter school opens, there’s no guarantee it’s going to last.

Four charter schools that opened in New Hampshire ending up closing due to low enrollment and lack of finances.

Judy Tilton is one of the founders of Compass Classical Academy.

The school received a $500,000 federal start-up grant, but Tilton, who now works as the school’s business manager, says that only goes so far.

Books and activities at Compass Classical Academy.
Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR

“We did things like Craigslist. Another school district adopted us, so all the furniture you see in this building, we paid $950 for.

New Hampshire received an $11.6 million federal start-up grant in 2010, which helped 15 new charter schools open over the past five years.

But that money is running out, and the state recently lost out on a new federal grant.

The new state budget increases per-pupil aid to charter schools by $1,000 to about $6,500.

But without those start-up funds, charter school advocate Matt Southerton says getting off the ground will be a challenge.

“It’s really going to come down if they cannot get federal funding, they’ll have to finance all of those start-up costs – curriculum development, teacher training, computers, books, desks – privately, I suppose.”