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I-Team: Families Question Culture, Curriculum At Mystic Valley Regional Charter School

MALDEN (CBS) - It is hard to argue with Mystic Valley Regional Charter School's academic success. With its high test scores and graduation rates, Mystic Valley is ranked one of the best schools in the country.

"There's a lot of commonality between what the students are learning," said Alex Dan, Superintendent of the school. "As a school of choice, and this speaks to the mission and the charter of the school as well, we as a school, consistent with what we see out of the founding documents of the country, the Declaration and the US Constitution, those core tenants of our country are to celebrate commonality. We are a great melting pot as a school."

But some, including former student Thora Henry, who now attends Malden High School, says that mission to treat everyone the same and not embrace cultural differences is out of date and racist.

"It does put a damper on your self-esteem," Thora said. She left the school after she questioned if Mystic Valley was a good school for her. "Yeah, the test scores are great but was it a good school for kids' mental well being, was it a good school for their physical well being, their emotional well being. And I came to the conclusion personally that it is not for me."

Controversy involving race at Mystic Valley dates back to 2017, when Mya and Deanna Cook came to school with braided hair extensions and were told to take them out. Mya says it was upsetting and made her feel uncomfortable at the school.

Mystic Valley has a diverse student body and tells us it is a majority minority school. It requires uniforms and has a strict dress code. The girls say the school backed down and allowed the hair extensions after the Attorney General found the school's policy was discriminatory. Deanna says, "We are not all the same so trying to push everyone to be the same is not OK."

Mya agrees and tells the I-Team, "It's time for Mystic Valley to move forward and start including people and accepting people. Enough with this monoculture that they want to push on everyone. It's not working."

Charter schools are funded with public money but are privately run. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) oversees the schools and in recent years included a category of cultural responsiveness or proficiency as a criterion for performance. The state found Mystic Valley only partially met that standard potentially putting the school's future in jeopardy.

Howard Cooper is the attorney for Mystic Valley and tells the I-Team the school has a long waiting list of families eager to get their children into the school. Touting for more than 20 years, the school has been incredibly successful.

"Families are literally pounding down the doors to get into the school," Cooper said. "Twenty years into this incredibly successful program, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has come along and said, you know what, forget your laser focus on academics and how well you're doing, we want you to teach cultural proficiency. Whatever that means."

As a result of the concern about the cultural performance standard, Mystic Valley filed a lawsuit against the state obtaining emails that allegedly show that state employees working with critics, began a campaign to discredit the school.

Eric Henry says he initially supported Mystic Valley but pulled his triplets out after questioning the culture and the curriculum. "It started off in the 5th grade with Mark Twain," Henry said. "But it continued in the 9th grade there were other readings that also used N-words and things of this nature."

But other parents like Rosanna Alves say the school isn't racist and believes a good education is the best way to level the playing field for people of color. "The kids are learning that's what matters to me honestly," Alves said. "I'm very happy with the school."

Mystic Valley's charter is up for renewal in 2023. As for the lawsuit, the state says it does not comment on pending litigation

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