At the Academy for Science and Design in Nashua, National Science Bowl championship banners hang on the cafeteria.
Test scores here are some of the highest in the state; 96 percent of the school’s eighth-graders are proficient in math.
Compare that to just 64 percent statewide.
And as Board of Trustees member Mike Diffily explains, the school was also recently named 50th best high school in the nation by Newsweek Magazine.
"Looking at the schools in the top 50 and the fact that there’s only one other school from New Hampshire within the entire mix and that’s number 217, that also endorses what this school is attempting to accomplish."
These all may sound like the traits of an exclusive prep school, but it’s in fact a public charter school.
Still, parent Kate Binder says getting her son Patrick enrolled was no easy task.
"You do have to fill out applications and I believe he had to write an essay. I did get some recommendations from his teachers. It took some time to put together the paperwork. And there was some placement testing.”
But Jennifer Cava, the school’s director, explains that was the process two years ago, when Binder applied.
“One thing that has been very important to me is making sure that the focus of admissions is in having kids choose ASD, as opposed to having ASD choose kids.”
So, it’s important to know the history here.
Four years ago, the school was using a placement test before students got in. If students didn’t score well enough, they weren’t accepted.
After complaints from parents, school officials acknowledged those students should have been allowed in the lottery, and they were offered spots the following year.
“Now we’ve moved the placement test to after the lottery. So it is truly a placement test, it’s not an admissions test. And getting people to really understand and believe that has taken awhile because there’s a perception and partially a perception because of history.”
After taking over in 2012, Cava says the school has worked to break down other barriers to enrollment.
The school no longer has an admissions committee, which had to agree students would be well-suited for the school before they were accepted.
The school also no longer asks students for teacher recommendations.
But Cava says as much as the school works to be inclusive, there are other factors at play.
“You could argue in what ways is the school still self-selective, right? Because at some level, coming to any charter school, there’s a higher level typically of parent involvement. You have to have parents involved enough to get in a car and drive your child an hour, which some parents do. There’s also a heavy parent involvement because of the level of work and rigor of the curriculum.”
The school features an accelerated STEM curriculum; that’s science, technology, engineering and math.
Seventh graders can take algebra, biology, chemistry, and experimental physics.
Cava gives me a tour of the school, which moved into this 70,000-square foot industrial building in Nashua three years ago.
"Very few of these walls were here when we came in. You can see running across the top here – we call that the “whale bone” – that’s where all these wires and cabling are (laughter) so it took some vision when we came in.”
The school opened with just 32 students in 2007; it now has more than 500 students.
There are another 55 students on a waiting list, and 162 applications already in for next year.
Students here describe a tight-knit community.
Fiona Doyle is a junior, and says much of that comes from a common shared experience: being victims of bullying.
“So I think that we look out for each other in that sense. We would never want anyone else to feel the harm that we felt when somebody told us that we were different or strange or not good enough because of how we felt about academics.”
The school goes through 12th grade, but only about half of students who start will finish at the school.
In a 6th grade engineering class, Cava says many students still want the larger high school experience, and will return to their district high school or attend a private school.
“Things like sports – we sure don’t have a football team. We have an art class, but we’re not able to offer pottery. We don’t have the broad spectrum of classes that kids are looking for if they’re interested in a variety of things. We put all of our real in-depth course work into STEM areas.”
So what happens when a student enrolls and can’t handle the rigorous curriculum?
Jay O’Connell is the school’s sixth-grade math teacher.
“If someone is struggling, I’ll say, you know we’re at such and such a chapter, let’s wait until we get to here because that’s really like the meat and potatoes of what we’re doing here. If they can handle that, they’ll be OK. But if they can’t get past whatever it is, I’ll tell them possibly this isn’t the right situation. That doesn’t happen too often, but it does happen. It has to happen and I’m not afraid to have the conversation.”
For all the school’s success, Cava says it’s important to her that it’s not built on an admissions process that only let in the best and brightest.
“One out of eight students here is on a 504 or IEP, so we have a lot of kids who are working with a lot of different challenges. So I think people are beginning to believe now that it’s not a private school masked as a public charter school. It is a public school. It is a different public school.”
Do you feel like you’re constantly fighting that perception?
“I do. I have spent the last five years trying to explain that is not the intention behind the school.
But other New Hampshire charter schools’ enrollment requirements are still raising red flags.
In February, a U.S. Department of Education monitoring report raised "significant concerns" with what it called extensive enrollment requirements at some of the state’s charter schools.
The review team visited schools that required students to write essays and attend interviews, an application process that could take weeks and potentially create barriers to admission.
New Hampshire Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry says she’s confident charter schools are open to everyone.
“It’s a requirement they use a lottery, which means all students and parents that express an interest, their name goes into the lottery process.”
But she also says applying to a charter school isn’t necessarily going to be the same as a traditional public school.
Essays and interviews, she says, may be part of that process.
“It’s an effort to understand the student coming in to the school; to be sure the parents are aligned with the philosophy. If complaints were to come to the department or concerns from parents in the last six years, I’ve never heard that, other than that one situation where they were taking a math test.”
Commissioner Barry says the growth of the state’s charter school program over the past decade speaks to the demand.
“Parents are looking for choices, they’re looking for different avenues for their children, and for a lot of parents, a charter school fits their needs.”