SLV School District Perspectives
Charter School Proposal: Redwood Academy
By Laura Dolson
The SLVUSD is in the process of considering a petition to start a new independent charter school, called Redwood Academy. The proposal was brought before the Board at the 2/3/04 meeting. At the 2/17/04 meeting, attorney Mattie Scott gave a presentation about the legal requirements related to independent charter schools. And at the 3/2/40 meeting, there was a public hearing on the subject, with presentations from the charter petitioners and quite a lot of public input. This article will: 1) Provide basic information about charter schools in California 2) Provide information about the Redwood Academy proposal 3) To discuss the potential impact of the proposed school on the SLV School District 4) To report on the input received at the public hearing and 5) To offer my own observations and opinions.
What is a charter school?
Charter school law was passed in California in 1992, although there have been many changes in the law since that time. The purpose of the law was to encourage innovation and choice in education, particularly for under-served students. Charter schools are exempt from many of the regulations of "regular" public schools, yet they are public schools, and open to all students. They may operated as independent schools, where the only relation to the school district in which they reside is fairly formal, with certain defined responsibilities on each side, or as "dependent" charters, which are administered by the district and usually more integrated into the rest of the educational offerings of the district.
Legally, the main differences between charter and non-charter schools are how they are formed (charter schools may be formed by any interested parties), more flexibility in how they are run, and in the textbooks and curricula they are allowed to use (non-charter schools must often use state-mandated textbooks, for example, while charter schools may choose whatever teaching materials they prefer). In practice, more and more programs with more experimental or alternative approaches are charter schools. Although there are many alternative programs offered by regular school districts (Monarch School in Santa Cruz and Hammer Montessori Elementary School in San Jose come to mind), teachers and parents are increasingly turning to the charter system to develop these kinds of approaches because of the flexibility they offer.
If SLVUSD charters the new school, what will the relationship be?
Independent charter schools do receive some oversight and services from whoever charters them (District, County, or State). If the SLVUSD charters the proposed Redwood Academy, it must monitor whether the school is fiscally solvent and conforming to state regulations. It must also provide Special Education services as needed (but may negotiate to be reimbursed for them), and appropriate facilities.
How would the proposed charter school fit with the current SLV charter programs?
SLV's Charter 25, founded in 1993 was one of the first charter schools in California. It began as an independent charter, but now is operated by the SLVUSD as a dependent charter school, i.e. totally administered by and integrated into the District. This charter school now has nine titles within the SLV, including several homeschool programs, the Nature Academy, and White Oak High School. An independent charter school would have no institutional relationship with any other school in the district, including the current charter programs.
What does Redwood Academy propose to offer?
The main differentiators between Redwood Academy and the other elementary schools are:
- K-8 school community with small class sizes for grades 4-8 (they are aiming for 24 per class). (Though theoretically the petitioners are aiming for 18 per class in grades K-3, they also say that their biggest response so far as been for these lower grades, and speculate that they are more likely to have full classes of 20 in those grades.) At first, the school community would deliberately be kept small - they are aiming for a total enrollment of 150-160 in the first year. Ultimately, they would like to expand to 400, about the size of Boulder Creek Elementary before the Redwood closure (Redwood Elementary had an enrollment of about 250 at that time).
- Parental involvement - Volunteering in the school is strongly encouraged. The charter document states that "Parents are strongly encouraged to provide support for all students, teachers, and staff to meet the educational goals of the school. Parental involvement supports the Redwood Academy strategy for limiting class size and integrated, hands-on learning." Their FAQ states that enrollment preference may be given to families who are willing to volunteer time to the school.
- Structure of the school week - They plan to offer academic subjects four days per week, with learning enrichment activities, such as field trips, on Fridays.
Their plan also includes
an integrated curriculum (where the various subjects are taught in an
interrelated way) with as much clear association to real-world application
as possible. "Character/Asset Development" will be emphasized.
Most elementary school teachers in the traditional schools include at
least some of these elements in their curricula. How much the planned
approach of Redwood Academy would differ from the traditional schools
probably varies according to which teachers in which schools (including
theirs) are being compared. The plan is also for the curriculum to be
"slightly accelerated" from the usual classroom pace. They are
in the process of researching learning materials and other curricula.
For more information, go to the Redwood Academy Web Site
How would the opening of an independent charter school affect the rest of the SLV School District?
The main effects would be through decreased funding (lost ADA money), and the need to lay off more teachers. The amount of both of these depends upon how many students leave the traditional program and go to Redwood Academy instead. Edith Hendon, head of finances for the SLVUSD, says that if 80 students leave the District schools, it would lose about $382,000 in revenue. That doesn't mean the budget will feel the full loss of that revenue, since we won't have to pay teachers for those children, but all the other expenses will have to be paid out even with the loss of income. Additionally, of course, more teachers would have to be laid off.
The final financial impact would also depend upon which of the District facilities the new school uses (though the District isn't required to offer the school any facilities for the 04-05 year, it may choose to do so). For example, the Redwood Academy petitioners estimate that they will require 8 classrooms to begin with. If they share facilities with a program or school that is currently open, that probably won't cost the District as much, because Redwood Academy would be sharing the cost of upkeep for the grounds, restrooms, etc. Additionally, where they locate may impact enrollment of both District and charter in complicated ways. For example, if they locate at the Redwood Elementary building, they may draw fewer children from the traditional schools, but also draw fewer students who aren't currently being educated in District programs. These questions are essentially unanswerable before-hand, but could have an impact on District finances.
How many teachers and students would leave the traditional schools if Redwood Academy is chartered?
None of the six teachers who signed the petition are currently teaching in the SLVUSD. It is unclear how many SLV parents would take their children out of the traditional schools. Jill Hitchman, one of the parents working on the charter, states that of the parents of the first 110 students to sign the petition, she estimates that 1/3 are currently not being schooled in the District (Baymont School and non-District homeschool programs were cited), 1/3 are looking to take their children out of the traditional schools next year, and 1/3 would probably stay in the district if Redwood Academy doesn't open. Therefore, she estimates about 40 "extra" students (who wouldn't have left anyway) may leave the District schools if Redwood Academy opens. However, more people are still showing interest, so the final numbers are unknown. The final number may be affected (one way or the other) by where the school is ultimately located. The petitioners are currently conducting a survey to get more of a definitive answer to these questions.
On what grounds can the District deny Redwood Academy a charter?
First, it's important to note that the proposed charter must stand or fall on its own merits: its potential impact on existing schools, teachers, or students are NOT legal causes for denial of the charter. These are the basic legal reasons for denial of a charter:
1) The educational plan presented is not found to be sound.
2) The petitioners are "demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement" their program. Part of the evidence for being able to implement the plan is a successful public hearing "at which time the governing board of the school district shall consider the level of support for the petition by teachers employed by the district, other employees of the district, and parents."
3) The petition doesn't conform to regulations concerning numbers of signatures and certain information which it must contain.
4) The charter has all the elements required in the Education Code, with "reasonably comprehensive descriptions" of each element. (Most of these are in this section of the code.)
Can the petitioners attempt to get Redwood Academy chartered elsewhere, if the SLVUSD board will not approve the charter?
Yes, they can petition the Santa Cruz County Board of Education to charter them, and, failing that, the California State Board of Education. In any case, however, if they enroll 80 or more students who live within the area served by the SLVUSD, it would eventually be required to give them a facility.
What objections have been raised regarding the Redwood Academy charter?
The public hearing on the issue of the charter elicited the following criticisms from teachers, parents, and other community members:
- One of the most frequent complaints was that the educational plan put forth is not descriptive enough to get a clear understanding of what would take place on a day-to-day basis at the school. People wanted a more complete description of the curriculum. The proponents responded that the charter is a contract and they wanted to stay flexible and not be bound by guidelines that are too strict.
- Many were concerned that the new school would hurt the rest of the students by removing resources from the "regular" schools. Several of these people urged the petitioners to consider becoming part of the District as a dependent charter school.
- There is some dispute as to the plans for teacher salaries and contracts in the proposed charter. The petitioners state that they are willing to work with the teacher's union, however, their budget is based on paying non-union wages. For their part, a representative of the SLVTA stated that an agreement could only be reached if the new school would offer the same salary and benefit package as the District and if they also worked with their "sister group", SEIU, the union for non-certificated staff. There is also reluctance to agree to a contract with a school that is causing hardship for the members who are laid off due to the new school opening.
- Lack of differentiation from traditional schools. This was especially expressed by some of the teachers currently working in the District, but some parents mentioned it as well.
- Lack of clear governance structure - some people pointed out gaps in the Redwood Academy policy on this.
- Lack of teacher involvement in the planning process of the school, and no opportunity to find out more about the teachers. Also, lack of other experts and administrators who would be responsible for running the school.
- A letter signed by 20 parents was presented to the Board. In addition to some of the above comments (lack of clear plan, lack of teacher and other expert involvement), they cited Education Code which state that charter schools should provide "expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving". They are concerned about the lack of a plan for low-achieving students and other students with special needs.
- A few people were concerned that the petitioners are the same people who tried to recall most of the Board last year, and who are supporting the current lawsuit against the district, which is attempting to reverse the school closures.
What was said in favor of the charter at the public hearing?
At this point, the only real alternative to traditional schools that the District offers at the elementary level is its homeschool programs. Most of the parents who spoke want a small 5-day/week school, with a smaller class sizes. A few cited what they feel to be inadequate facilities at BCE. A few said that their children were either currently being educated outside the District, or they planned to do so next year, but would enroll their children in Redwood Academy if it opened. They preferred their childrens' school to be in the local community.
I'm all for alternatives in education. I've been interested in educational philosophies and alternatives since I was in high school, and I've observed many traditional and alternative schools in action. After kindergarten at Quail Hollow Elementary, we put our daughter in a private Montessori school for first and second grades, and it was the charter programs that brought us back into the District. We have now participated in two of the titles (Boulder Creek Homeschool and now Nature Academy), and have been very pleased. I am aware, though, that not every family can homeschool, and I think it would be great to have an alternative full-time elementary school in the SLV.
I've got to say, however, that at this point it's not very clear to me exactly what makes the proposed school "alternative". This is probably mainly due to a lack of clarity in the charter document. In my opinion, a more well-defined educational philosophy and clearer plan is needed to give prospective parents an accurate picture of what (besides size) would make the school different. The term "integrated curriculum" is an example of this. Although I generally think that integrated curricula are usually a good idea, that term is quite broad, and I really don't know what THEY are thinking when they use the term. More detail is needed.
As far as basing a new school primarily on it being smaller, with a smaller class size, this doesn't sit well with me, either. Everyone would love to have their children in small classes. Every teacher would love to teach small classes. Unfortunately, the District can't afford that right now, but the SLV Teachers, along with the Education Foundation are launching a drive to get donations to do just that. The petitioners of the proposed charter have cited their proved ability to generate private donations as part of the reason to charter them (because it makes their budget more sound). But wouldn't it be nice if ALL the children of the District could benefit from these abilities? In any case, to me, a charter school should be different in other ways besides just smaller.
The above reasons aren't "showstoppers" to me, however. The biggest deficiency I see in their plan, and the one I really just can't get past at this point, is the lack of teacher involvement in developing this new school. Yes, some teachers have signed the petition as being "meaningfully interested" in teaching at the school, but they are not involved in spearheading the effort. As far as I can tell, a group of energetic parents have done almost all of the work to get this potential school going. As for the teachers who signed the petition, we don't know their background and experience. We don't know what they would plan for their classrooms. These leaves us which a big gap where there should be the most important element (indeed, one could even say the only really vital one) of a school.
18 months or so ago, I was with a group of homeschoolers who met with Eric Schoffstall (charter administrator for the District) about why so many were choosing to leave District homeschool programs after sixth grade. A number of us were supportive of new charter titles that would have more of the characteristics we were looking for. I, among others, volunteered the willingness to put a lot of energy into working on it. Eric's main message to us was, "get a credentialed teacher to spearhead the effort - otherwise, forget it". At the time, I was somewhat annoyed with this answer, since it seemed to me that interested parents should be able to get it going.
I have since realized that Eric was right. No matter how hardworking, no matter how well-intentioned parents are, it is going to be very much an uphill battle without teachers in the effort. Every successful charter school I know of was started with teachers leading the way, or at least very central to its development. This is not only because of the expertise teachers have in developing educational philosophy, plans, and curricula, but because, very simply, an educational program in most ways IS the teachers. Once a school is in place, the most control I have as a parent is to go into a classroom and watch the teacher in action, then choose to put my child with that teacher or not (if, indeed, that is even possible). I may be able to offer the teacher a suggestion or two, but for the most part, as a parent, I need to be able to trust the teacher.
Alternative programs tend to draw scrutinizing parents, and in the long run, these parents will not choose to put their children in a program with mediocre teachers (I'm not claiming that Redwood Academy would have mediocre teachers - I'm saying "we don't know"). It takes special teachers to get a new school off the ground. Although the parents spearheading Redwood academy are very hardworking and clearly want the best for their children, in my opinion that "best" is not in their grasp until they have superb teachers on board. Ideally, the process would have worked best if they had started it in collaboration with these teachers. Failing that, they should have had them by the time they brought the petition forth to the Board. Developing a new school without teachers, and then plugging them in near the end of the process, dramatically lowers the probability of success.
In conclusion, I'm impressed with the work that the petitioners have put into developing their school, and I think they have a promising start. I think they've probably brought it to the Board for approval prematurely - of course, that's for the Board to decide. My brother-in-law, a high school teacher, recently started a new public alternative high school in rural Vermont, with three of his colleagues. He says there is no way they could have gotten it ready for State approval in six months. I think with more time for development, and some great teachers, the petitioners could have something special. I do hope they strongly consider pushing to work within the District so that a school that gives to some doesn't take away from others.