Education: A tale of two charters: In exploring new education, Marin parents navigate unchartered waters
Is it the best of times or the worst of times for charter schools in Marin?
Well, it certainly hasn't been the best of times in the Lagunitas School District for the past few months. In fact, it seemed to be "deja vu all over again." Forty years ago a group of parents and educators fought hard to bring the child-centric Open Classroom emphasizing individual learning styles to the small district—a program that continues to flourish.
In addition to the Open Classroom and a Montessori program, the district offers the Lagunitas Waldorf Inspired Program (LWIP), based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. It is one of very few public school Waldorf programs in the state or country. (The Novato Charter School is also a Waldorf-inspired model.)
The LWIP has support not only from the families within it, but the school district and board of trustees as well. It has co-existed with the other programs since its humble beginnings with a kindergarten class in 2004. (It now serves close to 50 children from kindergarten through fifth-grade.) As the newest of the district's offerings, parents feared that current and future cuts, especially the loss of a teaching position, would erode the program, so the Administrative Council (elected by LWIP parents) explored different options and decided that a charter school was the best choice.
Although, according to the Administrative Council, "99 percent of the parents" backed the idea, the proposal was fraught with problems from the start. While the accusations and allegations flew in the San Geronimo Valley, a group in Novato formed the North Bay Education Foundation with the intent of starting a second charter school—to open in August 2013—in the Novato Unified School District.
This group's approach is quite different—for a number of reasons. The Lagunitas program is established and sought charter status based on known and expected financial issues facing the district and program. The process didn't really get under way in earnest until last spring. The charter petition was submitted in April this year with the goal of starting as a charter school this month. NBEF, on the other hand, is allowing much more time
NBEF board member MJ Lonson says the charter petition is complete and currently being reviewed; it will be submitted to the Novato Unified School District by early October. The enrollment process for students is now open, and, as of press time, it appears that approximately 600 students have shown intent to enroll. There is no school site (the closed Hill Middle School has been mentioned) or staff yet.
A group of parents, unhappy when Rancho Elementary converted from a magnet school with a back-to-basics emphasis and high test scores to a neighborhood school, morphed into the NBEF, which plans to implement the Core Knowledge curriculum—currently used in close to 800 schools nationwide, including charter, public and private.
Lonson says, "The tremendous level of parent interest...reveals a desire in Novato for a progressive educational alternative. Education reform is a nationwide conversation, and NBEF believes the proven success of the research-based Core Knowledge curriculum and methodology provides a unique approach to academic excellence for all students."
Marin currently has three charter schools: Phoenix Academy in San Rafael, this past year serving 13 students in grades 9-12, opened in the fall of 1995; the Novato Charter School, a K-8 program with about 250 students opened in August 1996; and Willow Creek Academy in Sausalito, also K-8 with about 250 students, opened in the fall of 2001. Marin School of the Arts in Novato and the Ross Valley School District's Multi-age Program at Manor School are not charters, in spite of many referring to them as such.
The California Charter Schools Association states that the Charter Schools Act, signed into law 20 years ago, allows "parents, organizations or community groups to restore, reinvent and reenergize the public school system." The schools, which are tuition-free (though many charters do request hefty "donations" from parents) and open to all students, are designed and governed by a local community rather than a central bureaucracy.
What some parents see as reorganizing and reenergizing a school, others perceive to be an attempt to run an elite, taxpayer-funded private school that drains resources from established programs. And right now, almost every school district in the state is struggling to provide for its students, including both Lagunitas and Novato. A Novato parent, who requested that her name not be used, feels quite passionately about what she considers the privatization of public schools. She says that charter schools, organized and run by a self-selected group of well-educated parents, eventually will devastate neighborhood schools and cause more "white flight" in her relatively diverse community. And, as she researches the law governing charters, she becomes more disillusioned.
Robert Ovetz, whose daughter is in the third grade at the LWIP, says the process that led to the charter petition was not democratic. Beyond his concern regarding the lack of transparency, Ovetz says the petition itself was "highly flawed." He cites a number of issues that could have long-term negative effects, ultimately putting the program at risk. Primarily, though, it was not feasible financially.
According to parent Mia Terziev, the charter committee formulated budget numbers with the help of a financial consultant—and it seemed viable. The district's initial analysis showed that as presented, the charter would cause larger deficits in the district. Though the board of trustees and district staff were supportive, the initial analysis stated, "The Petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition." The petition was missing other key elements as well.
The possible negative fiscal impact on the district along with the divisiveness in the community led the LWIP Parent Council to withdraw the charter petition. For this school year, the Lagunitas Waldorf Inspired Program continues as part of the school district—with two new teachers on board.
The Administrative Council is hoping to work out "longstanding differences and points of contention within the district at large." Members are particularly concerned that the program's parents and teachers are seen as elitist and selfish. Some tough lessons were learned—by the adults. And in Novato? The NBEF is taking it slowly and carefully. Supporters—and opponents as well—should be mindful of what happened in the Lagunitas district. But when it comes to what's best for our children, many of us need a refresher course in rational thinking.