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CHARTER SCHOOLS TODAY www.charterschoolstoday.com

ATLANTIS CHARTER SCHOOL

A Three-legged Stool: Connecting Teachers, Parents and Stuednts THE MAG A ZINE FOR CH ARTER SCHOOL EX ECU TIVES


Atlantis Charter School

A Three-legged Stool: Connecting Teachers, Parents and Students Produced by Todd Rodgers & Written by Prem Desai “I tell every parent that I see education as, “a three-legged stool: including school staff, parent and child all sharing equal support, balance and stability in that child’s educational experience,” says Fernando Goulart, executive director of Atlantis Charter School in Fall River, Massachusetts. He’s held a staff position at Atlantis for the past 14 years. This experience, in addition to his twenty years as a teacher and counselor, has taught him well “that when school staff, parents and students fail to meet our responsibilities, we cannot expect children to do well, or at least not as well as they should be able to do.” That is why the 702-student school, which serves Kindergarten through eighth grade, emphasizes parent involvement so highly. “We really do not just invite but rather encourage, cajole, support and applaud parents who come in to participate in their children’s education on a daily basis,” says Mr. Goulart. He stretches a budget of just under $9 million and the time of 113 staff members to include many fun activities designed to draw families into the school. The reality is that it is working! After nearly 14 years (Atlantis opened as one of Massachusetts’ first charter schools in 1995) there is now a wait list of 364 students coveting the opportunity to enroll at the school where students are selected via a lottery.

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Goulart, who became principal in 2000 and executive director in 2006, is presiding over plans to expand the school to include a high school. Atlantis is currently spread across two facilities located less than two miles apart - one for grades K-4 and the other for grades 5-8. The school’s Board of Trustees has recently purchased 66 acres of land and is developing very progressive plans that will result in building a new stateof-the-art, very “green” facility and school campus. The UMass-Dartmouth graduate, with postgraduate work completed at Boston University, Brown, Rhode Island College and Bridgewater State College, is convinced that a big part of what makes the school so popular and successful is its community spirit. In an area where only 25 percent of adults


over the age of 25 have earned a college education, and only 50 percent have received a high school diploma, he felt it was extremely important to find positive ways to bring the parents into the school. “At least 50 per cent of our parents have bad memories of their own school experiences,” he says. “So getting those parents into a non-threatening environment where they could participate in a fun activity allows them to relax and say ‘this is not so bad.”’ The school asks that each parent volunteer six hours of their time per year, and Mr. Goulart says more than 70 percent of parents meet or exceed that number. In fact, 20 percent of parents volunteer 20 hours above the requirement! “Fun is the key,” he adds. “With all the testing and all the requirements of No Child Left Behind, much of the simple fun of learning has, unfortunately, been taken out of education. I think we need to still remember that these are kids, and kids need to have fun, and don’t we all learn better when we’re having a good time?” It is certainly not that he is against testing by any means. “There has to be accountability,” he says, “but when that accountability is solely based on one test it doesn’t take into account the students’ different learning styles and intelligences.”

for schools to meet the goals that have been established for them when there is little flexibility to do things in a different way.” The school challenges staff and students to think outside of the box. It’s currently using a workshop model to teach reading and writing - a 15 minute teacher-directed mini-lesson on the class’s objective. “This year the school began using a very focused and individualized math program, AddVantage Math. We hired four elementary teachers who have been trained to teach elementary math, so we’ve basically departmentalized the elementary school in grades one through four so that the regular classroom teacher teaches all major subjects except math. Only twelve students go to math class at a time, while the rest of the class stays with the regular classroom teacher and receive an additional period of reading. Then they switch classes. This allows students to truly receive the individual support they desperately need. “ Even with the coming expansion, Mr. Goulart feels the

Mr. Goulart thinks the way in which states categorize students or schools, ranging from advanced to warning (failure), is absolutely unfair and fails to recognize excellence that is not necessarily reflected on a paper and pencil test. “There are too many students right now who have the ability, have the knowledge, have demonstrated that knowledge but just can’t pass the test because they do not test well. The same is true regarding staff. We have one teacher at our school who is absolutely incredible in the way that she is in the classroom and the results that she gets from the kids. Yet she had to take the test three times before finally passing. She is just not a good test taker - and I’ve heard of this same issue repeated time and time again. On the other hand, we have had teachers who have passed the test with flying colors, but in the classroom s/he just cannot engage students in meaningful instruction. A teacher is so much more than a grade on one test as well.” Mr. Goulart would like to see all schools have more flexibility in choosing their teachers. Too much emphasis is placed on the ‘highly qualified’ teacher status and not on the true and easily recognized skills that make an excellent teacher. “It’s difficult

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curriculum - which was developed by all staff members - should be evolutionary and not revolutionary. This process encourages teachers to create the changes necessary to make progress versus having the changes made by a consultant who would be told by an outside source what to do to increase scores. Teachers have a forum to recommend curricular changes during the weekly staff development time (every Tuesday after school), and during the four days of professional development the week before school opens. “We meet with and listen to our teachers because they know what is and is not working in the classrooms,” says Mr. Goulart. Discipline is handled through a system of merits and demerits. There has never been a student expelled from Atlantis. As a constructive alternative, the school assigns students to productive in-school suspensions rather than out-of-school suspensions to stop kids from going home and watching TV or playing computer

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games. With such a strong community spirit - 60 percent of students who enroll in Kindergarten together graduate from eighth grade together – Mr. Goulart says that disciplinary complaints or issues at the school usually originate from students who transfer in from other districts, do not yet understand the focus of the school, and may try to test boundaries. While the Executive Director will retire in August, the current school building plan, the upcoming renewal of the school’s charter for an additional five years of operation, as well as all the day to day operation of the school will continue to keep him on his toes until his very last day of work before beginning his hard earned retirement. Atlantis, as with all charter schools in Massachusetts, receives no money from the state to build facilities. So, as school and community members begin working with the architects to determine the vision for the new school, he maintains a diligent focus on plans of how to raise $30 million to $50 million in funding


and loans to finance the building of the dream school. “It’s really an exciting time for us as we look forward to providing our students and staff with a facility that will offer the space for us to do many of the things that are now so difficult.” While Atlantis is limited by a law that stipulates charter schools can only enroll 9 percent of students in the district, Mr. Goulart is certain that Atlantis will be able to expand to a future maximum student capacity of approximately one thousand when the project is complete. “Most importantly,” says Goulart, “the present community spirit must remain strong. That spirit is best illustrated by the actions of the school community when two of the school’s students lost their house in a fire. “During a two-day period we raised over $6,000 to help this family just from our students, our parents and our teachers. This type of giving comes from

the closeness that has been created by students who truly care, support and identify with a spirit of community that goes above and beyond what is taught within the four walls of a classroom but is personified in Atlantis Charter School ‘s staff, students and parents.”

COMPANY AT A GLANCE Established : 1995 Staff : 113 Students: 702 Executive Director : Fernando Goulart

www.atlantiscs.org

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CHARTER SCHOOLS TODAY

Winter 2008

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Atlantis Charter School

Lower School (Grades K-4) 2501 South Main Street Fall River, MA 02724-2015 United States

Upper School (Grades 5-8) 37 Park Street Fall River, MA 02724-2015 United States

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CHARTER SCHOOLS TODAY THE MAGAZINE FOR CHARTER SCHOOL EXECUTIVES A Three-legged Stool: Connecting Teachers, Parents and Stuednts Winter 2008...

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