Chartering a Course
College prep drives the agenda at BART Charter Public School
Students in class at Berkshire Arts & Technology (BART) Charter Public School, for children in grades 6-12 with a focus on its college prep program.
Courtesy of BART
While Berkshire county public schools are busy wiping away the cobwebs of summer break, the 350 students at Berkshire Arts & Technology (BART) Charter Public School in Adams are already knee-deep in their school’s rigorous college-prep program.
According to enrollment counselor Monique Nottke, BART has a waiting list that is comprised of students from the main sending districts—Adams-Cheshire, Pittsfield, and North Adams—as well as from Dalton and Williamstown. Students already in attendance hail from as far south as Lee.
“It’s not an alternative school. It’s an alternative,” says Nottke. “College prep is the laser focus of the school.
“We set one finish line here and everyone crosses it differently.”
Nottke is the first point of contact for prospective students and their parents looking for a different education experience outside the traditional public-school setting for grades 6-12. During the earlier years of BART’s incarnation, the school had the unofficial reputation of being strict, a place where students would go to modify their behavior. But that’s not the case anymore. Nottke says that most families that come to her now are simply being “smart shoppers.”
“Sometimes people are coming with an issue from their current school, but a much larger population are shopping around. They are being good consumers. They recognize that their child is doing really well at their current school, but learning to fly under the radar. They want to be academically pushed. The selling point is different for everyone.”
Because it is a public school, BART is tuition-free and is required by the state Department of Education to adhere to the same MCAS and PARCC testing schedule and to meet the same curriculum benchmarks as other public schools. Math, English, science, and history are requirements alongside a rigorous Arts and Technology program that includes music lab, photography, computer programming, performing arts, and fiction writing, among others. The school also requires that students participate in an 80-hour internship at a local business and/or organization, complete at least one course held on a local college campus, and apply to and get accepted by at least one college.
“There are some families who think ‘We aren’t a college family,’ and that’s a real struggle,” Nottke says. “But after being here, there is no question in a student’s mind that they are college material, that colleges will want them.”
According to the Massachusetts DOE school profile report for 2014-15, nearly 40 percent of BART students are economically disadvantaged and more than 21 percent are classified as having disabilities. These challenges enunciate the need for educational options in the Berkshires, says BART’s founding trustee and former board chair Pam Johnson.
“I had an absolute sense in my gut that we had to create a way for children of Berkshire County to have options,” Johnson says. “One of the great things about a charter school is that you can keep making adjustments. When people talk about charter schools, by law we cannot be selective. It’s very exciting to see who has chosen to come here. Everyone is setting their aspirations and taking their work seriously. We use feedback to modify what we’re doing. And we’re able to give a whole new trajectory to students who wouldn’t have had the opportunity.”
Irish Noel just completed her senior year at BART and is headed to Lasell College in Newton. Noel was granted admission to BART in eighth grade after spending most of her formative years in the North Carolina school system. At first, things were tough for her.
“It was definitely different. When I compare the two curriculums, it is much more rigorous here. BART moves at such a fast pace,” Noel says. “I spent multiple days after school with my teachers. But now I feel totally prepared. Actually, by the time college acceptances roll around, everyone graduating pretty much knows what they want to do.”
One of the key elements to preparation is the internship program. Students are taught to think on their feet in real work situations. And these aren’t random work assignments. At the beginning of the year, students sit down with their advisors and teachers to determine what kind of work experience will advance their academic pursuits. Meghan Robertson is the intern coordinator at MASS MoCA, and she works closely with the two or three BART students who come to the museum every year to work in different departments like production, education, installation, creation, and communications.
“BART students are very engaged. They get here 15 minutes early, ready to work. They understand the experience they’re getting,” says Robertson. “It’s a very student-focused process where we meet with the teachers, dive into the way a particular student is learning and what their goals are.”
Johnson, Robertson, and Noel all point to the school’s portfolio-building requirement as the cornerstone of the education process. More than just a sampling of the students’ academic work and their completed projects, the extensive portfolio is equally focused on, as Johnson puts it, “having a plan.”
“Success in college, in life, these come from so-called soft skills: managing time, self-advocacy, knowing how to get resources, having a plan, and navigating new situations.” Johnson says. “It’s a very deliberate program.