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April 07, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Sequoia district tosses Aurora High School a life preserver Sequoia district tosses Aurora High School a life preserver (April 07, 2004)

By David Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer

Aurora High School, the struggling five-year-old Redwood City charter school, got a reprieve last week in its effort to renew its charter, which expires in July.

The five-member Board of Trustees of the Sequoia Union High School District, after receiving a damning staff report on the financial viability and educational soundness of Aurora's program, decided to give the school "a last chance," as Trustee Gordon Lewin put it.

After a long and sometimes emotional deliberation, the board voted 3-to-2 to propose a one-year charter in lieu of the five-year charter Aurora was seeking.

The high school's charter was with the Redwood City Elementary School District. State law now requires such schools to seek sponsorship first from the local high school district, then from the county and state boards of education if rejected.

Aurora may decide on whether to accept the deal this week, said the school's board president Mark White in an interview.

Substance attacked

Superintendent Patrick Gemma wrote the eight-page report based on interviews and observations made during a three-hour visit to the school by two assistant superintendents and a school assessment official.

The report includes detailed charges that the school's courses are not aligned with state standards, that academic performance is too low, and that the six-person faculty is inadequately trained.

Indignant at the report's prevailing negative tone, Mr. White, who called himself an eternal optimist, predicted that the trustees would reject the charter. "It is really a foregone conclusion," he said, describing the report as filled with inaccuracies "almost from start to finish" and accusing the district of painting "a false picture of Aurora."

A slender reed

Aurora had a friend in trustee Olivia Martinez, who argued that the school could blossom with Sequoia's imprimatur. "Bite the bullet, give them a (full) charter and work with them," she said.

Board president Don Gibson proposed a one-year charter, provided the school accept active oversight of its academic program by the district. Renewal would depend on the school's progress.

Trustee Gordon Lewin, after administering a mild rebuke to Mr. White for his "attack on the district," said a closely monitored school improvement program was in order and voted for the charter.

Voting against were trustees Sally Stewart -- a former Aurora board member and a charter school advocate -- and Lorraine Rumley, who wrote letters seeking support for the school five years ago.

Aurora's students are not getting the education they need, Ms. Rumley said, adding that staff time for oversight could be a burden.

Ms. Stewart said she preferred delaying the vote to give Aurora time to respond to the specific points raised in the report.

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