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Grade Expectations

By Elizabeth Sears

 

Rachel Romano certainly understands the importance of providing meaningful education opportunities to a community’s youth. She’s the founder and executive director of Veritas Prep Charter School, a charter-school system that uses innovative turnaround strategies to help students reach their full academic potential.

“Most of our students come into middle school performing below grade level, and the vast majority leave us headed to high school at or above the level of their peers across the state,” she said.

That transformative impact will no longer conclude at the end of eighth grade. Indeed, Veritas Prep High School is set to welcome its inaugural ninth-grade class in the fall of 2022. Now scholars have the opportunity to continue with Veritas, complete essential high-school graduation requirements, and even earn credits toward a college degree.

Veritas Prep Charter School started off in 2012 as a middle school in Springfield holding the belief that all students have the ability to achieve at high levels if given the right opportunities. It has been a decade now since the middle school opened, and since its founding, Veritas has grown more than those who created it could have imagined.

Rachel Romano

Rachel Romano

“Most of our students come into middle school performing below grade level, and the vast majority leave us headed to high school at or above the level of their peers across the state.”

The school now serves more than 370 Springfield students and is one of the Bay State’s top-performing middle schools. Veritas also has a Holyoke middle school in addition to its flagship Springfield location. Dramatic gains have been shown in student achievement, with double the ‘proficient’ and ‘advanced’ MCAS scores than those received in Springfield Public Schools. With such growth and success, the enthusiasm surrounding the opening of the new high school is immeasurable.

“We never had intentions of opening a high school when we started, but year after year, our students who matriculated on to ninth grade and were in high school would come back and say, ‘why don’t we have a high school?’” Romano explained. “So given the parent and student demand for Veritas to open a high school, a few years ago we decided maybe it is time that we expand our charter to serve our students through high-school graduation.”

 

Course of Action

Veritas Prep Charter School was given the approval to open a high school back in 2020. Veritas assembled a diverse design team to create a high school that can effectively serve the needs of its students. The design team was comprised of more than 200 Springfield community members, including current students, alumni, families of students, and stakeholders.

“We really wanted to center the voices of our students, our alumni, our teachers, our families, to design a high school that would meet the needs of our students,” Romano told BusinessWest.

That is where the ‘Portrait of a Graduate’ was developed — something Romano is particularly proud of.

‘Portrait of a Graduate’ was developed through the design team and embodies the vision of Veritas — that all of its scholars will “emerge as woke citizens, innovators, leaders of tomorrow, and learners for life.”

An important element of this mission includes the opportunity to earn up to 30 college credits — two years of college worth — completely free of charge. These college credits can be transferred to any state college or university. Students can even potentially earn an associate degree by the time they graduate high school.

“Too few Springfield students complete college degrees, and since we will have our students through high school, we want to go ahead and give them access to college courses while we can support them to earn some credits, tuition-free,” Romano noted.

Currently, only 26.4% of Springfield residents obtain a higher-education degree, compared to almost 50% statewide. Veritas is seeking to address key barriers to higher education such as access, lack of preparation, and cost.

“Our middle school is always focused on getting our students set up with a vision of themselves in college and pointing them toward high school ready to be on a college prep track. What we learned is that even that is sometimes not enough,” she went on. “We really are centering the need in Springfield for degree completion. We know degree completion is going to significantly increase the earning potential, health, and quality of life for our students and their families; earning a degree has been an asset that’s been pretty elusive for many Springfield Public School students.”

The Springfield community was prioritized throughout the entire planning process. Veritas scholars have played a key role in the planning and development of the new high school, providing input on everything from the school’s design to its curriculum. Students will have multiple areas of study to choose from that cover a wide range of high-impact careers, including health sciences, engineering, education, and more.

“With the right voices at the table, we have been able to reimagine what high school can look like and create a compelling, career-focused, early-college model,” Romano said.

Veritas Prep High School is following a career-focused early-college program. Students will not be able to select any course they want from the catalog, but rather will have pathways to choose from that are aligned with career trajectories. Veritas seeks to place its students on pathways where they can be certain about getting jobs and earning a good living.

“With the right voices at the table, we have been able to reimagine what high school can look like and create a compelling, career-focused, early-college model.”

Not only will students have the option to take college classes during their time at Veritas Prep High School, but they will also be able to get relevant and beneficial certificates — for example, a certificate in Google Suites or a nurse-aide certification for students who are in the health-sciences trajectory.

“We’re really trying to equip them with meaningful experiences in the high-school years that will send them off to hopefully four-year degree programs,” Romano said, while helping those who plan to work immediately after high school access gainful employment experiences while they work their way through school.

Even though charter schools operate a bit differently from their traditional public-school counterparts, they serve the community in a similar way. Charter schools were created from federal legislation with the intention of creating innovative schools within the public-school space while providing parents with choices.

Although students do have to apply to Veritas, there is no selection criteria — as long as a student has a mailing address in Springfield, the opportunity to attend is open to them.

“We’re really excited to open a new campus this August … we will have some vacant seats available for other Springfield students to join our inaugural class as well,” Romano said.

Current eighth-graders at Veritas are guaranteed a place in the new high school, and a lottery will be held to fill the remaining spots. The high school will expand by one grade per year up through grade 12.

 

Class Act

When discussing the immense impact Veritas Prep High School will have on the Springfield community, Romano spoke of the unlimited academic and social potential that Springfield students possess.

Given the opportunity, any student can achieve the goals they set their mind to, she insisted. “Veritas scholars will become changemakers who are equipped to choose their path, challenge inequity, and transform the world.”

Daily News

 

SPRINGFIELD Veritas Prep Charter School (VPCS) has been awarded $53,883 from the Mass. Teacher Diversification Pilot Program, a state-funded grant program that provides approximately $2 million in competitive funding to support local school and district efforts to strengthen and diversify existing teacher recruitment and retention programs. VPCS is using this grant to establish the Veritas Prep Teacher Diversification Fellowship Fund to help educators and aspiring educators who identify as people of color enter or remain in education by removing common financial barriers. 

 

Candidates can apply for access to funding for education, MTEL test fees, relocation assistance and tuition and loan reimbursement. New and current associate teachers and lead teachers are eligible to apply, and Teach Western Mass (TWM) residents can also apply for TWM tuition coverage. Recipients must commit to working at Veritas Prep middle or high school for three years. All recipients will receive access to free MTEL test preparation, if applicable. 

 

“Veritas is working to become an anti-racist organization, and as we continue to move this work forward, we strive to recruit and retain a diverse teaching staff and to create a school community where all teachers feel safe, heard and valued,” said Romano. “We know that representation matters for the success of all students and especially our students of color.” 

 

Launched in April 2019, the Massachusetts Teacher Diversification Pilot Program provides tuition assistance to support enrollment into an approved-educator preparation program and MTEL preparation and examination. Schools and districts may also use grant funds to enhance teacher recruitment and retention efforts. 

 

“Teachers of color often experience barriers to entering and remaining in the teaching profession, and as we work to remove some of those barriers within our school by creating an anti-racist community, we know that there are external financial barriers that can also affect recruitment and retention,” said Romano. “We hope that by creating a diverse, inclusive, anti-racist organization and offering financial assistance through the Diversification Fellowship Fund, we can continue to improve experiences and outcomes for students, teachers and staff.” 

 

Educators and aspiring educators who identify as people of color can learn more about the Veritas Teacher Diversification Fellowship Fund and apply for support here: veritasprepma.org/teacher-diversification-fund/. 

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