Hot cocoa and a chess game in the morning, soccer or ballet class in the afternoon.
On Jan. 26, parents from four chronically under-performing San Diego schools will get 20 minutes (per school) to present to the school board a glimpse of what kind of school they believe will not only raise students' test scores but, more importantly, motivate their kids to learn.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), schools that fail to meet testing targets four years in a row must be "re-structured"-in other words, re-open in September as drastically different schools than what they were. When it comes to how this will happen, parents are in charge.
Under NCLB, parents have five options: fire the school's staff, turn the school over to the state (an option California says is untenable), turn the school over to an outside organization (so far, there have been no takers), overhaul the school's curriculum or become a charter school. Of the eight schools forced to restructure before this fall, four have chosen the latter, with a majority of parents supporting the change. As of Jan. 14, nearly 80 percent of parents at King Elementary School support the switch to a charter. At Gompers Middle School, 63 percent of that school's 1,000 students support its charter. Sixty-one percent of Keiller Middle School parents support Keiller's charter and 51 percent of the parents of Memorial Academy's 1,450 students support a new charter.
NCLB states that if a school has a majority of parent support, it can remain on district land and re-open as a charter school. State law, however, requires 51 percent of a school's teachers to support the charter in order for the charter school to operate on district land.
So far, parents are still working to collect teacher signatures.
Teachers union president Terry Pesta says he's not opposed to the schools becoming charter schools-he just wants teachers to know they will lose the protection of their union contract. Pesta pointed out that he'd rather see the schools become dependant charters rather than independent charters-all four schools have chosen the latter option, which gives them more freedom. Under a dependent charter, teachers would remain part of the union. "We haven't... worked against these people in their quest to become independent charters," Pesta pointed out. "What we've tried to do is give teachers the facts... so that whatever decision they make is a wise decision that's in the best interest of the students, the community and the employees."
Dennis McKeown, who operates the King Chavez Academy charter school and is helping King Elementary set up a similar program, says his teachers enjoy better benefits than their district counterparts: "Our teachers here make more money, have more freedom, a four-day work week and they love being here." King Chavez doesn't have a turnover problem like other schools south of Interstate 8, he said. Last year, King Chavez ranked seventh in the state for academic improvement.
School board Trustee John de Beck, who calls NCLB the Bush Administration's attempt to undermine public education, says he won't oppose the charters if the schools can obtain enough teacher signatures and if the charter appears workable. But he thinks that allowing the schools to go charter equals a white flag from the district.
He said that in the past, charter schools have failed even with overwhelming community support. If it were up to him, he'd take the 300 credentialed teachers currently employed by the district in non-teaching positions and place them in failing schools.
Brian Bennett who heads the district's office of school choice, says he's reviewed the four charters and even though they were pulled together in just a few months, they appear solid. He noted that some of the district's best-performing schools are charters. And, a recent study by the Rand Corp. concluded that charter schools, especially those serving low-income students of color, outperformed their public-school counterparts within three years.
Students of color comprise 92 percent of the four schools opting to go charter. Three of those schools describe the number of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch as "significant." At King Elementary, all 735 students qualify. Of those King students, only 9 percent are proficient in English and 15 percent are proficient in math.
In their proposals, all four schools have outlined a rigorous college-prep curriculum and school uniforms. Gompers has proposed collaborating with UCSD to draw on the university's supply of tutors, teaching interns and technical assistance.
The proposals also include elements to further engage students. Memorial will offer after-school programs including soccer, Ballet Folklorico and Tai Chi classes and a fitness club. Gompers promises that students will be greeted each morning with classical music, hot cocoa and newspapers and can join a morning computer club. Keiller, too, will offer a morning computer club as well as a chess club. Memorial Academy also plans to collaborate with community agencies such as Logan Heights' "Circulo de Hombres," which provides counseling for at-risk adolescent males.McKeown promises that King students won't be shorted when it comes to arts and athletics. "Our whole thesis is that if you nurture hearts, their minds will follow," he said