Lighthouse director Paul Niles answers questions about schools future in new 9 acre East Harwich location
By Teresa Martin
Lighthouse Charter School director Paul Niles can't help but smile. His school just closed on the purchase of a 9-acre parcel in Harwich and by next September the site of the now-former Regal Theatre complex just off Rte 6/exit 10 will be home to the school's 230 students.
This means change. But Niles says it is all positive -- and long needed.
Physical constraint removed
For 17 years, the charter middle school has been located in the "Underground Mall" a vintage commercial building on 6A near the Orleans-Brewster line. Creative use of space and a focus on what happens in the classroom rather than the physical amenities of the classroom helped the 228-student school thrive over time despite its less-than-ideal physical space.
Parents who tour the school in its current configuration have to take a long mental stretch to move beyond a facility that is clearly limited in space and configured around a Chinese restaurant, dental offices, and other pre-existing commercial uses.
Dollars and sense
As for the school, not only does the physical environment constrain its options, but it also pays dearly for the privilege. In fact, it was economics that triggered the search for buying its own building.
In a traditional public school, the town or towns that comprise the district own and pay for maintenance and operation of the physical building. The costs ultimately fit into the municipal budget.
In contrast, public commonwealth charter schools are responsible for the costs of their own facilities: Lighthouse currently spends $31,000/month in lease payments.
Cha-ching. Do the math. An analysis of the current lease payment quickly shows a mortgage makes financial sense and provides better facilities and facility control. Over 20 years, the $1.9M purchase and estimated $2M renovation for the Harwich property support the school's economic stability.
"Look at where we are now," said Niles. "This is a major upgrade at less monthly cost."
Beyond the dollars
Besides economics, the Harwich site gives the school 9 acres of woods to use for science and environmental themed programming, as well as moving it closer to the Cape's denser population areas.
That latter fact has rumors flying.
Niles says that the school has never had and does not have any intentions of expanding beyond middle school.
"Middle level education is tough," he said. "We do middle school really well. It is what we do," he reiterated firmly.
Nor does the school intend to grow in scale. Despite a long waiting list, the school's size is part of what makes it work. Niles says someone else could take the model and duplicate it elsewhere, but growing the size of this school would change the dynamics that lie at the heart of its curricular and philosophical values.
However, one thing Niles hopes for from the new location is a more diverse student body in both racial and income mix.
Students who apply to a commonwealth charter school school go into a lottery. Getting in - or not - depends literally on the luck of the draw. While that won't change, Niles hopes that the more central location will encourage students from many different backgrounds to enter the lottery.
To that end, he said the school is planning on advertising the lottery in a diversity of locations and plans to do specific outreach through minority churches and other venues to let families know that Lighthouse is an option of all incoming 6th graders.
The school is also addressing the other barrier to diversity: transportation.
Unless they live in the Nauset School District, students need to find their own means of getting to school. Distance, cost, and parental abilities create a reality check for many students who might otherwise apply.
Since the school currently lies within the Nauset district, the district transports students from Brewster, Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet, and Truro to the charter school, as well as to the district's own regional middle school also located in Orleans. But next year, after the move, even Nauset-based students will need to find their own ride.
Several years ago the school's parent group began a bus service that runs along Rte 6 from the upper cape down to Orleans. Families pay for their students' bus passes for the service.
Niles said the parent group and the school are working to transition to service to the school directly, and that the school intends to make transportation scholarships available so that no one is excluded based on ability to pay. It isn't a complete or perfect answer, but it is a start.
"Transportation is a tough issue for a rural charter," Niles said candidly. "And it is a fairness factor for students."
But on the bright side, the loss of all transportation means the school has a new freedom: freedom to reconfigure its start and end times. The state mandates minimum attendance hours, but a charter by its nature has the ability to lengthen or shift those hours. As it moves to its new facility, that's one of the changes the school is exploring.
Will a longer day let it meet its goals better? Will it provide a better academic outcome for students? Will it provide a means for enrichment? The school doesn't know the answers yet, but as part of the move has begun exploring them.
In some education reform efforts, teacher unions have stymied attempts to alter the school day. With the charter school now unionized, is this an issue there as well?
Niles said that it isn't. So far, he said, the school's union experience has been to provide structure for addressing issues rather than constraining educational experimentation.
How can they afford it?
With school budgets stretched across the county, how it is that a middle school on the Cape is able to take on a renovation project?
This isn't some "hey kids, let's build a school" volunteer effort. The total cost of the project will fall just under $5M.
As an entity overseen and licensed by the state, school has to follow the state's Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) requirements, such paying prevailing wage for construction. (link: http://www.mass.gov/anf/property-mgmt-and-construction/oversight-agencies/dcam/)
Focus on basics
Niles again pointed to the underlying economics. The cost of the project doesn't represent new spending - instead, it represents money they had to spend one way or another on their physical plant.
Then, there's the school's reality focus. Niles said that through conversations with students, staff, and alumni the most important elements for the school rose to the top.
There won't be a cafeteria, for example. The school plans to continue its history of contracting with outside vendor (aka, restaurants) for lunches, which students eat in small classroom settings. Some kind of kitchen facilities would be nice for curricular reasons É but that can wait.
As can a gym. As can playing fields. While the school might like these amenities, getting to better classroom space forms the top focus and it can continue its current leasing practices for the time being.
"We aren't building a Taj Mahal" said Niles. (link: http://www.tajmahal.org.uk/)
Hammers in hand
With a closed sale and architectural plans in hand, two parallel processes have begun. On one hand, the physical construction process is gearing up.
During the remodeling, the movie house will transform from a lobby and six screening rooms into 15 classrooms, offices, and a theatre/large general use area.
Each existing movie theatre must be re-graded to remove the slanted floors. In five theatres, the space will then be divided into three classrooms. The sixth theatre will remain one large space. The lobby will be transformed into offices and other shared administrative use.
That process creates Phase One - and is what students will walk into next September, on the first day of the 2012-13 school year.
Which makes Niles really smile. "We'll have a new clean facility, ready to go," he said.
But what makes Nile smile even more is the potential in the near future. Even as Phase One is underway, the school simultaneously has begun engaging both staff and the community in what should come next.
This includes not only schedule issues, but also the kinds of uses the property could grow into. For example:
Playing fields are high on the list of next-step priorities - how can they be used as both school and community fields?
Hiking paths provide curricular benefit and mesh with the schools long-standing environmental focus - what's the best way to develop both the land and the learning?
What partnerships, like the existing one with Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, can be both maintained and cultivated anew? (link: http://www.ccmnh.org/)
It might not be the Taj Mahal, but developed the right way, it could become a jewel of its own kind. Which is exactly what Niles and his board of directors are hoping for.