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By J.D. O’Gara

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It’s one of the oldest charter schools in the state, and now the 20-year-old Benjamin Franklin Classical Charter Public School, serving Kindergarten through 8th grade at 201 Main Street in Franklin, across from St. Mary’s, will double its size, increase to regional status and look for a new building.
“We are what’s considered a district charter school,” says head of the school Heather Zolnowski, who has acted not just as principal, but essentially superintendent for the past two years and 5 years as assistant head of school. “We are Franklin Charter School District – if we have more students than we have spaces for, the siblings of those already attending go into first tier (of a lottery system); we pull them first. Then, we pull from anyone residing in Franklin at time of their application. Then, after that, anybody in state of Massachusetts can apply.”
Now that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) approved the Benjamin Franklin Classical Charter Public School Amendment in late March, students from several other surrounding towns will have a better chance to get chosen in the lottery.
“Becoming a regional, the way that that will change is first siblings, then anyone who lives within district will be going into second pool instead of just Franklin, then anyone else,” says Zolnowski. Now included in the second tier along with Franklin residents are those from Holliston, Medway, Millis, Bellingham, Blackstone, Millville, Hopedale, Mendon, Upton, Milford, Norfolk, Plainville, Walpole and Wrentham.
“And those are all towns that over the past 19 years have shown interest in applying and attending our school,” says Zolnowski. The charter will also allow the school to double in size, to 900 students a change that will also necessitate a move to a larger facility.
Currently, the charter school has 447 enrolled, with a maximum of 450 under their previous charter. This allows space only for openings in Kindergarten, says Zolnowski, and only 14 new families this year.
The school’s charter was originally approved in 1995.
“Our school was started by grassroots group of parents who really wanted a type of education that was different from the type kids were receiving at the time,” says Zolnowski. These parents, she says, wanted to “educate the whole child, not just in math, reading, writing, history and science, but also language and ability to actively think and engage in education. Students start presenting at academic assemblies in Kindergarten, with public speaking up to 8th graders, who have Community capstone projects that students plan, implement and present to audiences of 200 to 300.”
Zolnowski explains that the school has a focus on art, music and language and stresses character education in everything it teaches, she says, as well as community service. In addition to classroom education, BFCCPS also partners with parents, whom it sees as the primary educators of their children.
“We have an amazing curriculum,” says Joanne Basile, parent of two boys in the school. Basile says she is excited that the school will be able to welcome larger communities.
“I don’t think it’s going to take away anything from the school experience. I think it’s going to expand what we have to offer,” says Basile. “The people who want to travel to the new charter school are going to be people like me, who are invested in the school. In order to go to a charter school, it has to be a family that’s made a choice.”
Basile is not daunted that the BFCCPS may have to entertain the possibility of moving to a different community in order to find space.
“That the school might be housed outside of Franklin is worth the reward and the benefits of having a greater space,” says Basile.
Zolnowski explains that the old brick building the school leases from St. Mary’s was its old Catholic school. St. Mary’s church in Franklin still uses the building for CCD classes.
“At 3:45 every day, we vacate the building, and children come in for CCD programs,” says Zolnowski. “The church has been very gracious and has worked with us, but they have one of the hugest CCD programs in country,” she adds. Zolnowski says she’d love for her students to have access to a science lab, language classrooms, more space conducive to special education services and expanded outdoor play areas, as well as more access to its building.
“The gym is the auditorium is the music room is the cafeteria,” laughs Basile.
“Our hope is to stay here in Franklin, This is where our home is … We’re working very hard to stay here,” says Zolnowski. “We’re concentrating efforts into finding a facility that would fit our needs and trying to keep it in Franklin.”
Enrollment is already set for the 2014-2015 school year, says Zolnowski, who adds that the school formed a development task force a couple of years ago to gain parent and staff input, and to learn from other regional charter schools that have undergone similar processes.
“The regional aspect of amendment will go in effect for 2015-16 academic year. That will happen in February/March of 2015. We will increase the number of districts served,” says Zolnowski. “We will not increase our enrollment, however, until we can secure a new facility.”

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