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SUNY Old Westbury Hosts Forum On Charter School

Residents concerned about funding, curriculum for proposed Doshi STEM Charter School on SUNY campus

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 15-year-olds in the United States rank 20th in science proficiency and 30th in math proficiency worldwide. Calvin O. Butts, president of SUNY College at Old Westbury, thinks that this tendency for young people to lag behind the rest of the developed world in math and science is especially hurtful in this area.

“I found this to be a constant discussion; no matter what forum, no matter where on Long Island,” said Butts, who serves on both the board of the Long Island Association and as a member of the Long Island Regional Economic Development. High school students aren’t achieving at the level in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) that may be necessary to prepare them for the careers of the future, and Butts and members of the college’s council feel something must be done about it. Their proposed solution, and the subject of the Monday, June 25 open forum at the student union on campus, is to open a new STEM-focused charter school, slated to open as soon as the fall of 2013.

“At this time, I believe that a charter school is right for our campus. It allows for the development of a public school without using existing public school space and it will be open to all students,” said Butts, placing great emphasis on the word “all.”

Concerned with answering a regional need for more STEM-based education, Butts said he challenged the members of the college council to come up with ideas for public-private partnerships in early 2011. Dr. Leena Doshi, a trustee of the Old Westbury College Foundation, came forward with the idea for a STEM-focused high school-level charter school on the college’s campus. The AU Foundation Inc., of which Doshi is a co-founder, has pledged 2 million so far to get the school established.

The school is designed around four key elements: a focus on STEM, application-based learning, college readiness through early exposure and early entry, and a teacher practitioner program that will draw on teacher candidates from the college. Instead of the typical 180-day school calendar, the school would utilize a 193-day school year, and a longer school day to allow for more instruction. With an anticipated enrollment of 125 students per class, the possibility of more applicants than the school can accommodate would be dealt with via a lottery system.

Students of the proposed school would be challenged by a “very rigorous” curriculum that will include many college-level courses. Every student will study Latin as their foreign language, and take at least two science classes per year: one traditional science, and one research class. By the end of high school, students will be expected to have conducted research on several topics, possibly publishing their findings. Even non-STEM disciplines, like English and social studies, will use STEM themes in order to keep the curriculum focused. The school will also offer “college-like” activities, such as guest lecturers, to increase college readiness.

In addition, Butts said that the staff plans to use the school to find new and different ways to make STEM education both exciting and feasible for young people, and looks forward to sharing those findings with other educators. “This is not a selfish kind of venture: This is something that we hope will be able strengthen STEM [education] across the Island,” said Butts.

During the question and answer period, many of the residents in attendance were skeptical. Some questioned the need for a charter school when Jericho High School, as well as several other nearby districts, produces great results in math and science. Butts agreed that other districts in the area provided high-quality education, calling Jericho “a paragon of excellence,” but stating that he expected most of the district’s students to come from other districts were the STEM programs are not as a strong. However, under education law, since the charter school will be located within the Jericho School District, Jericho students will get priority should they apply.

Many also expressed concern with the school’s funding. If a child from a given school district chooses to go to the charter school, the home district is required by law to send the charter school their per-student monetary allotment for that child; however, while the slide presentation at the forum identified those funds as “state aid,” Phil Heckler of Hicksville pointed out that very little of the money school districts would be responsible for actually comes from state aid.

“As I understand it, right now we get about ten percent [of our budget] from state aid; Jericho gets about three percent. So the money that’s provided from the school districts is really coming from real estate taxes…it’s not coming from the state,” said Heckler, going on to say that he was concerned siphoning money from local school districts in this manner would have a negative effect on districts like his own.

“That may be beyond what we can resolve in our discussion about building a charter school here,” said Butts.

Jericho Superintendent Hank Grishman, who was in attendance at the forum, agreed with Heckler’s concerns. “My great concern, and we’ve heard some of this discussed this evening, is the funding mechanism and its effect on our schools,” said Grishman. “You talked about how Jericho school district allows $24,000 per student: that is not state aid. Of that $24,000, I would guess that $23,000 comes from local taxpayers,” he said, going on to say that shelling out $24,000 per student, especially in light of the 2 percent tax cap, would make it difficult for his district (and others) to improve their own STEM programs.

In response to these comments, Butts said that he would look for creative solutions to address funding concerns. In addition, the school hopes to secure at least some of its funding through grant money and philanthropic support.

Others noted concerns with the proposed curriculum, which does not include biology (instead, ninth-graders will take AP Environmental Science), while others questioned how the school would handle remediation. Butts and his team clarified that the school will have both accelerated programs and remedial services for those students who require them.

Assuming the application for the school is approved by the Charter School Institute of New York, the facility will be located in a section of the old academic village on the SUNY campus. Butts stated that an estimated $5 million will be needed to build all the facilities for a fully functional school, which The AU Foundation has indicated they will support. However, whether or not AU will supply all the funds, or just the $2 million they have already committed to the project, was not disclosed; the source of that money is not clear at this time. Toward the end of the evening, Butts stated that he and his team welcomed community input on the project, and residents would have more opportunities to share their concerns and comments before the establishment of the school.