One element of the current job posting for a new principal at Southbridge Middle/High School that caught our attention was the line, “Southbridge Public Schools, under the leadership of Superintendent Buzz Nembirkow, has created an intensive and innovative plan to overhaul Southbridge education as he did with the Brockton Public Schools.”
We have heard repeatedly about Mr. Nembirkow’s transformative role in the Brockton school system. It is the foundation of the miracle he is expected to perform here in Southbridge.
It was therefore with some surprise that I recently came across a 2012 article from the Boston Globe titled, “Sabis seeking charter school in Brockton”.
In that article Shawni Littlehale, described as a founding member of the proposed Brockton charter school, says, “While the Brockton school district is doing somewhat better than it used to, it remains in the lowest 10th percentile for performance in the state. I’ve seen how charter schools have improved education and are closing the achievement gap between minorities and whites. I’m just interested in getting such results for the students of Brockton.”
Now, if Buzz’s tenure in Brockton was so successful, why is it still in the lowest 10th percentile for performance in Massachusetts?
However, my curiosity about that fact was just the beginning of an odyssey of discovery about this subject.
Sabis is an international for-profit company that currently operates two charter schools in Massachusetts and six in other states.
The Globe article characterizes Sabis’ performance in running these schools as follows:
The charter school planned for Brockton would follow the same educational practices used by Sabis in its other schools, offering “a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum, accessible to all students,” according to its state application.
At the Sabis-run Springfield International Charter School, a K-12 system on which the Brockton school would be modeled, every senior for 11 years running has been accepted to a college or university by graduation.
In addition to the Springfield charter school, Sabis manages the Holyoke Community Charter School, and will operate the Lowell Collegiate Charter School when it opens in fall 2013.
Interestingly enough the same organization attempted to establish a charter school in Brockton back in 2007-8.
The Globe article goes on to observe, “Five years ago, Sabis tried to open a Brockton-based charter school to serve students in 13 area school districts. The Brockton school superintendent at the time, Basan Nembirkow, adamantly opposed the plan, and other district superintendents followed. The Board of Education ultimately denied the charter school application.”
To say that the Board of Education denied the charter school application does not exactly do justice to the event. It was, in fact, the first time the Board of Education had ever denied a favorably recommended charter school application.
The Boston Globe reported on that 2008 decision. "I'm ecstatic," Basan Nembirkow, superintendent of Brockton schools, said in an interview after the vote. "It's the first time the state board has rejected a commissioner's favorable recommendation on a charter school."
As of now it remains the only Massachusetts charter proposal ever to be rejected by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) after being recommended for approval by the state commissioner of education and the state charter school office.
Perhaps feeling free of the strictures of being a school district superintendent any longer, Mr. Nembirkow chose to participate in a 2012 forum sponsored by the Pioneer Institute. The meeting was promoted as a Pioneer Forum to Focus on SABIS® and the Role of For-Profit Charter School Management Companies.
Mr. Nembirkow’s participation in the forum, as it regards SABIS and charter schools was reported by Edspress.com in an article titled “The Buzz in the Bay State”. Among the observations of the now-Superintendent of the Southbridge Public Schools were the following:
“I think it’s [SABIS] an excellent model for all instruction. We use the word differentiated instruction today, but how can you differentiate instruction if you don’t know where the kids are?”
“Class size is a myth; an absolute myth.”
“When I looked at the SABIS model, the instructional model is sound.”
“It’s a whole lot easier [for districts] to [do] what has always been done and blame somebody else.”
“SABIS has done a good job of taking what works best and putting it together, dealing with training teachers and administrators so there is a unified system.”
“From my perspective on schools, SABIS is a good model.”
Question from Jim Peyser, former Massachusetts Commissioner of Education: “Given the SABIS school in Springfield was a strong school, why wasn’t that good enough for you [Buzz] to support them coming to Brockton [in 2008]”?
Answer from Buzz: “My title was Superintendent of Brockton Public Schools, so right off the bat there’s an enlightened self-interest involved in that…. Basically, the issue was finance and politics. It had nothing to do, or very little to do with the quality of the [SABIS] program.”
“When SABIS came [to Brockton] we saw it as a financial threat. Simply as a financial threat. It took money away from us, which was about $4-5 million. Based upon that, our progress in BPS would have been substantially affected.”
“So my job defending the Brockton Public Schools, as the Superintendent, was to do whatever I could to stop that particular threat at that time, so we mounted a very good political campaign.”
“Almost 90% finances” was the reason Buzz cited for opposing the SABIS school application.
Peyser asked panelist: “So, for profit charter management: who cares or deal-breaker”? Buzz responded: “I have no issues with that.” [emphasis added]
The financial issue is addressed in the 2012 Boston Globe article:
As public schools, charter schools cannot select their students, and if prospective candidates outnumber available seats, a public lottery is held.
Public school districts frequently oppose the opening of charter schools in their midst, since they lose state aid dollars connected to student enrollment. In the first year, the 540 students at the proposed Brockton charter school would represent $5.3 million in state education aid, at about $9,900 per student. The per-student estimate was provided by Jose Afonso, director of US business development for Sabis.
According to Afonso, state officials have tried to ease the loss of aid money to districts where charter schools open by phasing out the funding loss over six years. Still, opposition has continued.
It’s about power and money: the loss of control and the loss of funds,” he said.
“It’s about power and money: the loss of control and the loss of funds”. It seems that, when he thinks that nobody is looking, Buzz agrees.