It’s been a long day for Bob Moore, the 53-year-old director of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, and sprawled in his office chair at the front of the school, he’s having trouble recalling the school’s six pillars of education.
“You’ve got freedom, democracy and respect,” he says, reeling off values one through three, and sounding more like a straight-talking sports pundit than the lifelong educator and scholar that he is. Fumbling, he finally reaches for one of a dozen folders on a shelf above him for the rest of the answers: responsibility, cooperation and trust.
Mr. Moore can be forgiven this momentary lapse — he has just completed a seven-hour inspection tour with six representatives of the state Department of Education, who renew the school’s charter every five years only if they are satisfied of its success. Whose mind would not be a bit numb? And behind the laconic delivery is a man very much on message for the project-based public school now in its twelfth year on the Island.
“They asked me what are the greatest challenges for the school,” he says, “and I told them it’s making sure the facilities match our growth.”
When he arrived 10 years ago, hired by a board that had originally intended to operate without a principal, the charter school was little more than a corridor with some trailers attached for classrooms.
“The notion that teachers could run the school was quickly dispelled,” says Claudia Ewing, a founding member of the school and now assistant director. “We did a full state search, had a big pile of applications. But we knew right away he was the man for the job. His experience and whole way of leading is so consistent with the school charter. He is decisive when he needs to be but he’s also all about collaboration. It was so meant to be.”
Today the school, a left turn off State Road in West Tisbury and at the center of lush grounds, is flanked by a basketball court, a soccer area and a new baseball diamond. The building itself has expanded steadily and has technology, social studies and science classrooms. A fund drive for a new wing, with an arts classroom, begun last Christmas and backed by a matching grant from a private donor, is going strong according to the director.
At the same time enrollment is up to 172 and there are now 40 administrative and teaching staff working part and full time.
“I’m not interested in building a 300-student school,” says Mr. Moore, “And we’re not going to have a football team, it’s just not going to happen, I’d love to have a gymnasium but I’m not sure that can happen, either.”
Instead, he says, the focus is on utilitarian spending: “Can every student use the thing? The arts room involves everyone, so it makes sense.”
Mr. Moore made use of most facilities as a student of Barnstable high school in the late 1960s. On several sports teams, he was also in several plays and was class president in his graduating year.
“I’m at my best when I’m busy,” he says with a growl and a hefty cough. “Most of the time I remember that.”
Mr. Moore, who lives in Vineyard Haven, runs through pastimes so fast you could be forgiven for thinking he does them all at once: cooking, walking and reading regularly he also spends hours at a time roller-blading the many paths that worm through the State Forest.
Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease several years ago, he takes part in the Island’s annual Relay for Life cancer walk. He gives the impression that time spent on self-reflection is kept to a minimum. “I’ll be cancer-free four years next fall. No, five. Four or five,” he says, before returning to a favorite subject: educational theory.
“It all goes back to becoming a member of the community,” he says, explaining the charter school learners-for-life aim for its students. “We spend a lot of time celebrating our differences and bringing students to respect each other. And this generally happens in a teaching rather than a punitive moment. We’re not in the business of making cars here. We understand everyone makes mistakes.”
According to Mr. Moore, a student who excels at conventional schools may become expert at gaming the system and little else.
“It doesn’t mean there’s any learning going on,” he says.
The charter school was begun in 1996 by a twelve-member steering committee of teachers, education scholars and parents, using public money — in order to offer Island students an alternative source of public education — based more on projects and mentoring experience than strict syllabus learning. “It is just the beginning,” says Mr. Moore of the charter school movement. “There will be many more options in the future, with different names.”
Mr. Moore already knew he wanted to work in schools when he attended the University of Massachusetts, minoring in education. After college he signed up for the Peace Corps.
Traveling to Tunisia in 1978, he taught English to adults in Tunis. He then went south to Gabon, supplementing his fluent French with some Arabic in the former French colony. He extended his tour another year to work at a middle school in the desert. There, he befriended a colleague who later hired him as principal of an American international school in Salvador, Bahia.
Six years in Brazil further prepared him for the startup of the charter school. From there he went to New York where he began a doctorate at New York University — which he is still working on — while working at the famous alternative K-12 school, the Little Red School House in the Village, Manhattan, commuting from Hoboken, N.J. He began as administrator of the after school and summer program, and later became principal of the middle school.
Meanwhile he kept in touch with his home state, reading the Boston Globe every Sunday. “One day I saw an ad for the Charter school,” recalls Mr. Moore. He already had a slight Vineyard connection. One of eight children and a twin, he spent a year and a half here as a child while his father helped set up an Island telephone network. “I fell in love with it then,” he says, “and though it was great training, I was ready to move on from New York. I was home on the Cape for Thanksgiving and as I was leaving I told my brother to mail my resume. And that was it.”
As a privately-operated, publicly-funded school not affiliated with the Martha’s Vineyard regional school district, the charter school relies on donations as well as state funding and must prioritize its spending to best serve the growing student body. Though there is greater curriculum freedom for charter schools, they are subject to the same federal teacher requirements and standardized testing as other schools, and undergo regular testing from which other public schools are exempt.
Mr. Moore sees that his job is not short on challenges.
“We’re an alternative school trying to survive on an Island with wonderful educational facilities. And if they choose to come they can also choose to go. You better be on your game every day,” he says. “But I love coming to work in the morning. Where else can you light a lamp in a kid like this, and be there for that moment of understanding?”