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MIT Connects With New, Nearby Charter School

By Angeline Wang

Nestled between homes, businesses, and biotech companies in Kendall Square, a red brick schoolhouse is holding its twenty-first day — ever — of classes today.

A tall, greying woman in a business suit with a walkie-talkie stands outside the glass front door and greets the students by name as they walk into the building, asking each individually how he or she is doing.

This woman is Paula Evans, head of the red brick schoolhouse, also known as the Community Charter School of Cambridge (CCSC).

Along with Emma Stellman, one of the assistant principals, and Robert Riordan, a curriculum advisor in Cambridge, Evans decided to start a small school where students could receive more personal attention — conveniently located near major universities such as MIT and Harvard.

“We started [CCSC] because we wanted a small school with a strong atmosphere that could provide connections to the adult world community,” Evans said.

The school is a hybrid of High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego with which Riordan is involved, and Frances Parker Charter in Harvard, MA, according to Stellman. Six members of the faculty, as well as Stellman and Evans themselves, have visited the charter schools to see how they run and how the students and faculty interact.

“From my perspective, I have always been interested in having a school that would combine the hands-on methodology of vocational education with rigorous academics,” Riordan said. “MIT is the foremost institution in the world doing that.”

MIT connects with charter

CCSC has forged a relationship with many MIT and Harvard programs, including iMath, SciPro, and the Harvard Cancer Awareness Society. There are also plans to work with local companies like Genzyme, Biogen, IDEC, and the YMCA. According to iMath coordinator Oliver Khamky ’08, in two weeks, about five MIT students will begin making weekly trips to CCSC to introduce the students to algebra using interactive computer programs.

Two CCSC school board members, Bakhtiar J. Mikhah of the Media Lab and Kim R. Beamon, associate dean of the Office for Minority Education, are affiliated with MIT.

Bakhtiar has been raising awareness about the school among his colleagues here at MIT. His plans include developing a course offered through the Media Lab that can incorporate technology and new research into the CCSC curriculum.

“I am very pleased with how many people on campus are aware of the new school,” Mikhak said. “It is great fun for me and fun for the kids, too.”

Another program that has just begun is Homework Center which meets on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursday after school for any interested students. CCSC is looking for student volunteers from MIT.

“We need serious help staffing the Homework Center after school,” Stellman said. “An hour from 3 to 5:30 would be absolutely enormous.”

Setting up the school

After almost three years of work in acquiring the charter, gaining support from the community, and setting up the school, CCSC opened on Aug. 31 to 180 Cambridge and Boston-area students in grades seven through nine. The school received more than 440 applications for its 180 slots, Evans said. Blind lotteries were conducted through the end of August.

“It appears that we have a very diverse population of students that mirrors the diversity of [Cambridge’s main] high school,” Riordan said.

The ultimate goal is to create a seventh through twelfth grade charter high school with about 360 students. A new seventh grade class will be added each year, along with new faculty. There are currently 15 teachers and 10 administrators.

Students take three classes: humanities, math/science, and an elective. Seventh and eighth graders take classes together, and ninth graders have a separate curriculum.

CCSC had help getting started from local businesses, including Product Genesis, the company that previously occupied the building, and furniture companies that donated supplies.

Personalization for everyone

The school is based on three design principles: personalization, adult world connections, and the idea of a common intellectual mission.

Personalization is probably the most apparent of the three. “The idea of personalization is that somebody needs to know each kid,” Stellman said.

For a CCSC student, each day begins with an Advisory. A small group of about 10 students along with a faculty member learn the “Word of the Day” and discuss their “Smart Goals,” which the faculty and administration make sure they complete. The Advisory on Mondays, in which students learn about community building and create personalized learning plans, is especially long.

The faculty and administration have visited the homes of 90 percent of the students and make it a habit to call home just to check in.

“Some kids live in large houses on Brattle Street,” Stellman said, “but we’ve also been to all of the projects in Cambridge.”

Part of having a common intellectual mission is to teach students how to collaborate to solve problems. “The teachers talk to each other, plan and work together, and the kids see that,” Stellman said.

As for adult world connections, each student will be required to complete an internship for graduation, as well as interact with other outside groups.