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Thursday, June 5, 2014

New charter school for arts will open in Merrimack, not Nashua

MERRIMACK – Gate City Charter School for the Arts will opening in Merrimack this September rather than its proposed location on West Hollis Street, which means Nashua parents will have to provide their own transportation to the state’s newest charter school.

The school’s plan to move into a former
Dartmouth-Hitchcock building fell through because of high renovation costs, said Karin Cevasco, chairman of the school’s board of directors. ...

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MERRIMACK – Gate City Charter School for the Arts will opening in Merrimack this September rather than its proposed location on West Hollis Street, which means Nashua parents will have to provide their own transportation to the state’s newest charter school.

The school’s plan to move into a former
Dartmouth-Hitchcock building fell through because of high renovation costs, said Karin Cevasco, chairman of the school’s board of directors.

Cevasco said the board learned on the last day of April, almost literally at the last minute, that their major investor was pulling out.

“We heard at four minutes to the end of the business day, when we were supposed to sign our lease,” she said.

The school then looked without luck for other locations in the city, including the possibility of sharing with other schools or colleges.

Instead, it signed a 10-year lease for 17,850 square feet of space on the first floor of a office building at 7 Henry Clay Drive, opposite the YMCA building in south Merrimack, just off Daniel Webster Highway.

About 70 percent of the 140 pupils who have signed up for the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school are from Nashua. Because the school no longer will be located in the city, Nashua will not be required to provide transportation for those students.

It’s unclear whether Merrimack students will get public transportation.

The name of the school will not change, Cevasco said. “We hope to return to Nashua someday,” she added. Its focus on arts-centered education also will remain the same.

The charter school has notified families that intended to send their children, because the transportation issue may cause some to change their plans, Cevasco said.

Any departures could probably be filled from the school’s waiting list, which Cevasco said is twice as large as the 140 K-6 seats that will be available.

There is precedent for this geographic maneuver: The region’s first charter school, the Academy of Science and Design, spent its first five years in a Merrimack office building before moving to its current home on Amherst Street in Nashua in 2012.

Gate City Charter has long planned to buy and move into the former
Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical building on West Hollis Street. That plan was stymied by the cost of converting it to an elementary school, which has very specific building codes about security, fire safety and other issues.

The building could have been bought for $700,000 but needed $820,000 in upgrades, Cevasco said.

The school’s new home is a two-story building that once housed computer firm Ellacoya Networks. The first floor is currently empty; the only tenant on the second floor is Clark & Lavey, benefits brokers.

Cevasco said the landlord was making hundreds of thousands of dollars of renovations so the building would be suitable for a school. As an example, she noted that some first-floor walls that currently end above the dropped ceiling but don’t connect to the actual second floor will be raised and connected to meet safety codes.

Charter schools are independent public schools that are authorized by the state Board of Education and are operated by a board of trustees. They have operated in New Hampshire since 2005.

They get public funds – roughly 40 percent of the per-pupil money that goes to traditional public schools – but depend heavily upon financial supporters and investors. Their teachers usually are not covered by public teachers unions.

New Hampshire had 11 charter schools operating in the ending school year, including Academy of Science and Design.

They take a variety of approaches, from project-based learning, to focusing on arts or sciences, to helping high school students who are “disengaged,” to using the Montessori method, to the Exeter-based Virtual Learning Academy.

Another 11 schools, including Gate City Charter, have received permission to open and are gathering finances and making preparations. That also includes Founders Academy in Manchester, which will open in September with Grades 6-8. The Founder Academy announced Wednesday that it has bought the building at 5 Perimeter Road, near the Manchester airport, where it plans to open.

The MicroSociety Academy Charter School of Southern New Hampshire is hoping to open an K-8 school in 2015 in this area.

The Nashua School District has looked at the idea of opening a district-sponsored charter school, but nothing concrete has come of it.

Gate City Charter School for the Arts has hired Bill Anderson, principal of a public charter school in Southern California, to be its first school director, roughly equivalent to principal.

Anderson has more than 30 years’ experience in education and has “a background in theater, has worked as a classroom teacher, and has written theater curriculum. He has been involved with schools around the U.S. dedicating his career to arts integration,” the school said in a press release.

Anderson studied educational leadership at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).