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Lynn School Committee approves eighth grade Discovery Academy

LYNN — The School Committee approved Superintendent Dr. Patrick Tutwiler’s request to close the Early Childhood Center and replace it with a new eighth grade, vocational skills focused “Discovery Academy” on Thursday night, which is meant to alleviate overcrowding at the city’s middle schools.

The unanimous approval came despite the committee’s concerns about their lack of involvement in the process, how drawing top-scoring students out of the district’s three other middle schools for the new program might lower those schools’ Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores, and how those eighth graders might be affected socially when located in the same building as high school students.

The $1.7 million plan to close the ECC and replace it with a 300-student, eighth grade Discovery Academy in its place in the Lynn Tech annex next year will convert Lynn Vocational Technical Institute into a junior/senior high school and focus on vocational programming in addition to teaching core classes.

Preference will be given to Breed Middle School students, followed by Marshall and then Pickering middle schools. Tutwiler said Lynn Public Schools has received 283 applications as of Thursday.

Students accepted to the Discovery Academy are not guaranteed acceptance to Lynn Tech the following year. Normally, 250 students make up the freshmen class at Lynn Tech, according to Tutwiler.

School Committee member Michael Satterwhite said the academy is one that could benefit many kids, but was concerned about the lack of collaboration between the committee and school administration of the program’s development.

Tutwiler announced the plan to the School Committee in late February and applications were solicited and received for the program before its approval by the panel.

He said it’s been past practice for it to be in the superintendent’s purview to open programs without School Committee approval, but wanted to make sure things were done right and legally with a vote. In addition, he said it was a scramble to make sure the program was feasible before bringing it to the panel’s attention.

Committee members were also concerned about the city’s three middle schools seeing a dip in their MCAS scores if they lost their best students to the new program.

But Deputy Superintendent Debra Ruggiero said not all those accepted into the Discovery Academy would be “A” students, but rather may be someone who has difficulty with attendance with average-to-low grades and may get in based on their interview rather than their transcript.

“We all felt very strongly that this program was about hooking the student who may be disengaged and re-engaging them through this school,” Ruggiero said.

School Committee member Brian Castellanos said vocational expansion is important, but was concerned about how the younger and older students would mix socially and wondered if there would be safeguards in place for the eighth graders.

Tutwiler said junior/senior high schools are fairly common in the state and there’s often structures or procedures to keep younger students away from the older ones. Although there would be no physical structure that would prevent interaction at Tech, their schedules, classroom locations and lunches would be different.

“While I understand, and in some ways agree with the separation piece, there are some real opportunities for mentorship and positive intervention,” Tutwiler said.
Despite the concerns, committee members were largely in favor of vocational opportunities for more students.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” said School Committee member John Ford. “I think this was brought about by a need and if there are risks, we’ll take them and we can tweak them down the road. I just think the reward is going to far outweigh the risk.”

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