LOWELL -- It may have been a cold, rainy Tuesday morning outside, but stepping inside the Collegiate Charter School of Lowell was like walking into a ray of sunshine.
Children of all ages and backgrounds filled the bright hallways, smiles on their faces. In the lower school wing, kindergartners laughed as they played with blocks and third-graders quietly paid attention in Spanish class. In the music room, students enjoyed a lesson on the contributions of such recently departed musicians as South African jazz pioneer Hugh Masekela and Cranberries singer Dolores O'Riordan.
Just a few short years ago, it was hard to imagine the impending transformation of the former Bradford Industries site on Middlesex Street.
It didn't come without a long planning process and fielding traffic concerns from the neighborhood, said Kathleen McCarthy, a CCSL founder who serves as vice president of its board of directors.
"We had many, many issues that we faced, but we pursued," she said.
Former state Education Commissioner David Driscoll, who toured CCSL Tuesday, said the board showed "a lot of courage" in its persistence, despite the flack it received from others in the community.
Driscoll assisted the school in refining its mission statement and resolving some state concerns about governance and enrollment in 2016.
"It's really a privilege for me to work with them, help them out a little bit, and now work with them as a partner thinking longterm, what should this school look like 10 years from now," he said.
CCSL opened to students in kindergarten through third grade in September 2013, and has added a grade each year since. It didn't have its own building at first, operating out of Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church and then in the gymnasium of the Hellenic-American Academy.
The 66,000-square-foot school, constructed in two phases, opened in September 2016. It currently holds 754 students from kindergarten through seventh grade. Enrollment has never been a problem, board of directors President Walter McGrail said, noting a waiting list of 150 students.
"I heard that if you go to this school, it will take you somewhere," said seventh-grader Kaemon Wambua, 12, of Lowell, who began attending CCSL last year.
He and fellow seventh-grader Lara Kong, 13, also in her second year at the school, said they have great teachers and quickly made friends.
The building will soon grow larger. The school aims to add a wing for grades 9-12 by September 2019, so that next year's eighth-graders will be able to attend high school at CCSL, McCarthy said. McGrail said the school aims to eventually have a total of 1,200 students across all grades.
The curriculum is set by the school's management company, Minnesota-based SABIS, which operates charter schools around the globe, and is tailored to meet Massachusetts requirements.
McGrail said academic progress is closely monitored and teachers tailor follow-up instruction to student needs.
Jeff Shanahan, CCSL student life coordinator and athletic director, said the diverse student body has a say in its education through the new student life organization. Student leaders in older grades hold weekly meetings to discuss academics and school culture and plan social activities such as dances and events to celebrate Black History Month in February.
Kirsten Hunkapiller, academic quality controller for grades 4-7, said students have excelled in standardized testing.
In their first MCAS 2.0 last spring, for example, she said sixth-grade students overall scored higher than the state average -- 55 percent meeting or exceeding expectations versus 49 percent. Hunkapiller said the teacher who taught sixth-grade math last year will now mentor other teachers.
School officials are proud of how far it has come since its inception and the strong community it has formed. They're also excited for Thursday, when SABIS President Carl Bistany will make his first visit to the school.
McGrail said he looks forward to seeing CCSL's first graduating class and hearing where they will attend college.
"We're broad-minded about the success of the students, and we're hoping our vision of their success in grade 12 will match what our dreams are for them," he said.
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