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Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School, area’s newest, to open Sept. 3 in Holyoke

  • Ljuba Marsh, principal, and Bob Brick, executive director, in front of their school, Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School, in Holyoke Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Ljuba Marsh, principal, and Bob Brick, executive director, in front of their school, Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School, in Holyoke Wednesday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bob Brick, executive director of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Bob Brick, executive director of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, Wednesday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ljuba Marsh, principal of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, stands in the school's foyer Wednesday. The main office is in the background.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Ljuba Marsh, principal of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, stands in the school's foyer Wednesday. The main office is in the background.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ljuba Marsh, principal of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, talks about the school in a classroom Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Ljuba Marsh, principal of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, talks about the school in a classroom Wednesday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bob Brick, executive director of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, stands in the school's science room Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Bob Brick, executive director of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, stands in the school's science room Wednesday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bob Brick, executive director of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, talks about his school in the cafeteria Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Bob Brick, executive director of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, talks about his school in the cafeteria Wednesday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Classroom at Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Classroom at Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke Wednesday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Academic support room at Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Academic support room at Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke Wednesday.
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  • Special education office at Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Special education office at Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke Wednesday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ljuba Marsh, principal of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Ljuba Marsh, principal of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, Wednesday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ljuba Marsh, principal, and Bob Brick, executive director, in front of their school, Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School, in Holyoke Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Brick, executive director of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Ljuba Marsh, principal of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, stands in the school's foyer Wednesday. The main office is in the background.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Ljuba Marsh, principal of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, talks about the school in a classroom Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Brick, executive director of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, stands in the school's science room Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Brick, executive director of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, talks about his school in the cafeteria Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Classroom at Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Academic support room at Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Special education office at Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Ljuba Marsh, principal of Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, Wednesday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

Its founders say the outreach effort was not only about filling this year’s 145 slots in ninth and 10th grades, but also about fulfilling the Freire school’s social justice mission.

The new charter school will respect diverse learning styles and teach students critical thinking and community organizing skills, they say. It will also offer adult education classes, a food pantry and other programs for community residents.

“The strength of the charter school movement is that it gives choices for parents, but it’s often said there are not choices for poor people,” said the Freire school’s executive director, Bob Brick, who lives in Northampton.

The new charter school aims to address that by recruiting students from struggling neighborhoods for its college-preparatory program.

“It’s about equal access,” said Brick, who also founded the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School in South Hadley in 1996.

Freire school Principal Lubja Marsh — another PVPA founder — said the school’s social justice objectives “are in everything we do, not only in the curriculum, but in students’ experience of the school.”

Named for Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire (pronounced fray-reh), the new school will draw 60 percent of its eventual 500-student population from Holyoke, according to its charter. After that, preference in a lottery will be given to students from Northampton, South Hadley, Chicopee and West Springfield.

School founders decided to focus on communities served by public bus lines to Holyoke to make attending the charter school easier for students from outside the city, Brick said. Students who live in Holyoke will be bused to the Freire school.

Marsh said 100 ninth-graders and 60 10th-graders — most of them from Holyoke and many from Spanish-speaking families — are enrolled for the fall. The charter school has accepted slightly more students than the 145 for which it has funding to account for attrition that may occur after the first week of school, she said.

The Freire school plans to add 11th and 12th grades over the next three years. School leaders dropped an initial proposal to open a middle school based partly on feedback from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which grants approval for charter schools, Brick said.

Leaders of public schools in the Freire school’s target area say they hope the new charter school succeeds. But they aren’t ceding any ground when it comes to educational goals.

“Their objective is similar to ours,” said Sergio Paez, Holyoke’s new schools chief. “The difference is they can choose their students. I don’t have that choice.

“As a new superintendent, I can understand why someone would offer an alternative,” added Paez. “I’m committed to seeing that students stay in school and graduate and I’m committed to seeing that all students have an opportunity in our schools.”

Nicholas Young, superintendent of the South Hadley schools, said it’s too early to say how many students the new charter school will draw from his district.

“What it means is that we should be as mindful as possible to offer the broadest array of programs to our students,” he said. “More pressure is probably not a great thing for the financial bottom line, but it can be a catalyst for improvement.”

Under the state’s Education Reform Act, public school districts provide about $10,000 in tuition for each student who leaves a home district to attend a charter school. The state offsets that amount under a reimbursement formula based on enrollments over six years.

Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz, chairman of his city’s School Committee, said the funding issue is what concerns him, not the existence of the new charter school. “Lots of families in Northampton choose that option and I respect that,” he said. “But to the extent that there are a lot of options, there is also the potential for kids to leave the district.”

Brick said the new Freire school hopes to collaborate with other public schools in the region.

“We want to be an addition to the community, not a distraction,” he said.

The school has already formed teaching and research partnerships with PVPA, Amherst College, Hampshire College and Holyoke Community College.

Justice school

So, what does it mean to be a social justice charter school?

Brick and Marsh say the mission can be seen in the very design of the school’s leased space in the former Atlas Copco building on Lower Westfield Road.

The main lobby looks more like a college admissions office than a traditional high school, with its open entryway and the school’s crest displayed on the door. Down the hall, a new “parent office” houses computer terminals for use by school families that might lack technology at home.

Marsh noted that while class sizes at the Freire school are small — just 15 or 16 students — classrooms are large, featuring “flexible” furniture that can accommodate group projects as well as individual instruction.

“We will have a computer for every single student in every single class,” she said, as she showed a reporter around the 23,000-square-foot space. “Technology is an important part of what we do here.”

The Freire school’s curriculum includes a summer academy, an extended school day and community-building activities on nights and weekends, Marsh said. In addition to exploring social justice themes in class, students will serve as members of the school’s board of trustees and will do service projects and internships with local community organizations.

Parents will also serve on the board, noted Holyoke resident Hazel Rosario, whose triplets, Mathew, Messiah and Marcus, will be entering the charter school’s 10th grade this fall.

As a board member, Rosario was invited to participate in interviews this summer with candidates for teaching positions at the school. “They came in and taught us a class,” she said. “That’s something you just don’t see.”

Rosario, who has lived in Holyoke for a decade, said she was also drawn by the Freire school’s focus on individualized learning.

“My children weren’t getting the tools they need in the schools here,” she said. “The way they teach at the charter school — teaching the child from the way they learn — that’s a blessing.”

Brick and Marsh have brought some of the ideas they feel have worked well at PVPA to the Freire school, such as having students eat lunch outside or in classrooms with teachers rather than in a traditional lunchroom. Another similarity is that students at the Freire school, like those at PVPA, will be asked to grade themselves on homework and will be able to rework assignments until they achieve their best work.

“Once a student knows how to do an A paper, they can do it again,” Marsh said.

Julian Seiser is a PVPA graduate and one of the Freire school’s 19 new teachers. Seiser, 28, who had been teaching in the Greenfield public schools, said he jumped at the chance to be part of the new charter school, where he will be teaching Spanish in the fall.

“It’s a unique opportunity to build a school from the ground up,” said Seiser, who attended Bennington College in Vermont. “It means really making a strong connection between what you teach and the world around you.”

That’s an approach that impressed Lilly Sanchez, a special education teacher at the Freire school, whose daughter, Thea Yvon, will be starting 10th grade there in September.

“The way they explained the school I realized it’s what I had always wanted for my daughter,” said Sanchez, who recently moved to Holyoke from Feeding Hills. “My daughter is very, very motivated. She wants to go to medical school and be a pediatrician.”

Sanchez believes the new charter school will also have an impact on the community.

“Other schools have after-school programs and services, but this one is really the whole package,” she said. “You can see it in the way the administrators talk and act. This school has a future.”

Additional information about the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School is available online at http://paulofreirecharterschool.org/.

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