New leadership team moves Woonsocket charter school forward

New leadership team moves Woonsocket charter school forward

The new leadership team at sister schools of Beacon Charter High School for the Arts and Founders Academy are, from left, Founders Principal Amanda Turcotte, Supt. Michael Skeldon and Beacon Principal Robin Murphy. (Breeze photo by Sandy Seoane)

WOONSOCKET – Scattered murals and inspirational quotes, painted by students over the past decade, liven the corridors of a four-story building on Main Street.

It’s summer now, and mostly quiet as administrators prepare for the next batch of students at Beacon Charter High School for the Arts.

Michael Skeldon, Beacon’s former principal and the school’s current CEO, is ready to assume a new role as superintendent of what is now the Beacon system of schools. The charter high school extended its reach to a new building on Social Street in 2015, launching sister school Founders Academy to serve students in grades 6-8, and prepare them for Beacon’s arts-focused education.

That move marked a major expansion for the Woonsocket-based school, and with Founders now entering its third academic year, and its first with students in all three grade levels, Skeldon says it is time to restructure.

The 2017-2018 school year will begin with two new principals. Amanda Turcotte, former academic dean at Beacon, will take on the role of principal at Founders, and Robin Murphy, former dean of students at Beacon, will become that school’s principal.

Skeldon, meanwhile, will step back from his role leading teachers and students and take a wider view as the public face of the Beacon system, working on building partnerships and seeking funding opportunities while supporting the two new principals.

“We’ve had this team approach to leadership anyway,” Skeldon said. “Conversation is key. I don’t see that changing very much.”

It’s an approach well-suited to the arts school culture, where students are also encouraged to express themselves and find their voice.

“Beacon is eclectic,” said Murphy. “You get a little bit of everything here, which is vastly different from public education.”

What started, it seems, as an experiment combining the arts and quality education has grown into a local institution with a unique culture and set of values. Everyone is accepted here, Murphy says, and problems like cliques and bullying are rare.

“It’s based on the students,” Murphy said. “They led the way in terms of culture. I think our niche is, it’s about the kids.”

“A lot come to the 9th grade trying to figure out who they are and are allowed to be themselves,” Skeldon said. “The kids create the culture, but we’re defenders of it.”

According to Skeldon, that culture allows Beacon teachers to expect more from students in academics and behavior.

“You can express yourself in your art every single day, but you’re going to be respectful,” he said. Administrators are unfazed by students’ varying modes of self-expression and diverse identities. “We accept them and say, ‘OK, fine, now what are we going to do about these test scores?’”

That academic focus – keeping Beacon’s crop of young artists on par or ahead of their peers when it comes to core skills like English and math – was the impetus behind launching Founders. Beacon enrolls students from across the state, and administrators found they were coming to the school in 9th grade with varying degrees of academic skill, making the state’s mandatory annual assessments a challenge.

“We said, ‘We need to get the kids earlier,’” Skeldon said.

Beacon was formed by Paul (Jack) Lawhead and Paul Collette, two retired teachers from Woonsocket High School, and became Rhode Island’s tenth charter school in 2003. The Founders name, Skeldon notes, is a tribute to those visionary “founders” and a reference the school’s focus on building students’ foundational knowledge.

“They get a flavor of the arts, but they’re not having year-long intensive classes,” Turcotte said of Founders students.

Turcotte joined the Beacon and Founders team in July 2015, coming to the school following a 10-year stint at Foxborough Regional Charter School in Massachusetts.

In contrast, Murphy has grown with the school, starting as a physical education/health teacher at Beacon when the school first opened in 2003. Together, Skeldon says, they form a well-balanced team combining a fresh set of eyes with outside experience and institutional knowledge.

The group has employed a slow-growth model at Founders, adding 45 students each year via a lottery system for a total of 135 in 2017.

“We’ll eventually creep that up to 168,” Skeldon said.

Classrooms are limited to 15 students each and students are encouraged to sample all three of Beacon’s majors, visual, culinary and theater arts, to help them decide their major before their freshman year.

Beacon, meanwhile, is capped at 231 students for total of 399 students between both schools. The small size, administrators say, means less goes unnoticed and problems can be dealt with quickly.

“We have the ability to nip things in the bud faster,” Murphy said. “It’s the students who come here for that level of acceptance. The kids are the ones that are reporting it and sticking up for each other.”

And in 2018, that culture will reach a new stage of integration, as the group sees the results of having reached the students at a younger age. Founders kids will be automatically enrolled at Beacon unless they choose to go elsewhere.

“That will be my favorite day,” said Skeldon. “What is Beacon going to be like when those kids get to 9th grade?”

But that’s bad news for the students and parents hoping to start their children out at Beacon as freshmen. Beacon’s lottery in 2018 will shrink from 60 down to just 15.

Turcotte and Murphy will work closely together to ensure that the two schools remain united by their shared mission to “develop artistic thinkers by nurturing self-expression while preparing graduates with the academic skills necessary for sustained academic success.”