New charter high school makes a pitch

Former charter school opponent is advising

By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

Sally Stewart, a former and longtime board member for the Sequoia Union High School District, is on a steering committee, advised by former Sequoia superintendent Pat Gemma and other educators, for a proposed fifth charter high school in the district. The school would be modeled on Big Picture Learning, a network of more than 100 charters with headquarters in Rhode Island and offices in San Diego, the Netherlands and Australia.

There are four traditional high schools in the Sequoia district, including Menlo-Atherton and Woodside, and four charter high schools. With a total enrollment of between 1,100 and 1,200, the charters educate 14 percent of the district's 8,300 students, according to official figures.

The proposed school has yet to have a name, location or website. Along with Mr. Gemma, the advisers includes San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Anne Campbell (a former superintendent in Portola Valley), and Denise Pope and Linda Darling-Hammond, both education scholars at Stanford University, Ms. Stewart said in a telephone interview.

The charter application to Sequoia begins in January, with hopes for a grand opening next fall, ultimately enrolling from 260 to 320 students, Ms. Stewart said. "We are aiming to start in September," she said. "If we can't, we can't. ... This whole thing is kind of like chicken and egg. You can't do this until you do that."

Broad spectrum OK

Students at this school would take courses acceptable for admission purposes by the University of California -- called the A-G requirements -- but the curriculum would not be strictly A-G, Ms. Stewart said.

Offerings of advanced-placement classes would depend on student interest, unlike at Everest and sister school Summit Prep, where all students take them and where A-G is the rule.

"We think students are capable of making good choices," Ms. Stewart said. Each student would meet with at least one adviser at least once a day, but students would also be encouraged to seek internships on their own -- a "loose-tight" relationship with the school, Ms. Stewart said.

Is a particular student demographic, for example poor or academically struggling students, a target for this school? "We expect them to come from any place in the district and any sort of (academic) performance, as well," Ms. Stewart said.

The Sequoia district includes East Palo Alto, Redwood City, Portola Valley, Menlo Park, Atherton and Woodside, and students with widely varying levels of readiness for academic work.

A new board

How will the Sequoia board take this? Since rejecting a charter for Everest Public High School in September 2008, it will have four new members. In the recent board election, all five candidates, in Almanac interviews, spoke warmly of Everest and Summit, including Lorraine Rumley, who opposed Everest's charter and is likely to be re-elected, according to the preliminary count.

In arguing against Everest, Mr. Gemma claimed that it would harm the Sequoia district in economically hard times and that the school's model violated what he said was the Legislature's intent for charter schools: that they focus on low-performing students.

Funding for this new school would come from the Sequoia district's operating budget at a per-pupil rate determined by the state, about $6,100 for 2010-11. With the district currently funding more than 1,100 charter school students, according to Superintendent Jim Lianides, that works out to $6.7 million from an annual operating budget of $101 million.

Are charter students an extra drain on district operating budgets? The Almanac tried to determine what the Sequoia district spends per student in a comprehensive school such as M-A versus a charter school, such as Summit Prep.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Lianides described the endeavor as too complex for a few sentences in a news story, given the range of needs among 8,316 students.

Isabelle Parker, the chief financial officer of Summit Public Schools, the parent corporation of Everest and sister school Summit Prep, emailed figures from the state showing the district paying the Summit Prep an average of $6,414 per student per year over the past four years. That report also shows the district receiving an average of $10,057 per student per year in tax revenues, a difference of $3,643 that, theoretically at least, is available for other purposes.

For 1,100 charter students, that difference adds up to $4 million in annual property tax revenues not allocated to charter students.

The Sequoia district has outlays that undercut the Ms. Parker's figures, Mr. Lianides replied when asked to comment.

For example, Mr. Lianides said, the district uses its general fund to pay out $7.5 million to augment state and federal subsidies for special education, $2.5 million for transportation and $450,000 for food services.

"I think what you will find once all of the appropriate funding is backed out of our property tax (revenues), the differences in spending levels per average student are significantly more narrow than they appear to be with the data you were provided (from Summit)," Mr. Lianides said.

When asked if outlays for charter school students limits the district's options, Mr. Lianides said that while the outlays were not without an effect, "I think we're moving more toward charter schools being part of a portfolio of educational opportunities for the district."

The Sequoia district would also be obligated to provide a building for the Big Picture school, but could fund that part of it with bond measure money and could charge the school rent.

Members of the steering committee at the Nov. 10 presentation predicted that the school would be located in Redwood City, central to public transportation and where they expect to draw the most students.

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Like this comment
Posted by member
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Nov 9, 2011 at 8:38 pm

As par with the quality of reporting from the Almanac – I would check with Pat Gemma – I think you will find him surprised to know he is on the advisory board – as will many of those you listed on the advisory board - I suggest you talk to them. Oh check facts -

Like this comment
Posted by Dave Boyce
Almanac staff writer
on Nov 10, 2011 at 10:39 am

Dave Boyce is a registered user.

For the record, Pat Gemma has confirmed to the Almanac that he has advised Ms. Stewart about this school, that he visited another Big Picture Learning high school in Oakland while he was superintendent of the Sequoia district, and that he will continue to be available as an adviser.

Like this comment
Posted by Value for Money
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 10, 2011 at 1:06 pm

If Denise Pope and Linda Darling Hammond are advising it's a pretty good sign that this new charter plans to focus on high standards and 21st Century skills supported and delivered in way that is accessible to all types of learners.

Last night, Sir Ken Robinson spoke at Sacred Heart School for the 10th Anniversary of the Common Ground Speaker Series. His message was that our current educational system was never designed to meet the needs of today's economy. For the United States to remain relevant and competitive we have to invest in an education system that celebrates individual talents and gives teachers and administrators the freedom to innovate and personalize so we are developing earth-shakers instead of churning out test-takers.

It would be nice to know that the SUHSD has changed its position toward charter schools because it believes in this goal. But my guess is that they just figured out the benefit of saving $3,643 and keeping class sizes from growing for every student who attends a charter school vs. one of the four district high schools.

Let's hope that the refreshed and re-energized SUHSD Board of Education will take a serious look at best practices from the Stanford School of Education, Summit Schools, Big Picture Learning and others and do something progressive for ALL the high schools that will address the current 30% dropout rate and create a culture of achievement and possiblity.

Like this comment
Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Nov 10, 2011 at 7:01 pm

As Superintendent of the Sequoia Union High School District, Dr. Gemma's reasons for not supporting charter schools had nothing to do with their objectives, staffing, students, philosophy or success. It was economics. Dr. Gemma made the highly flawed argument that making the district fund charter students was "stealing" money from students who attended the larger comprehensive high schools. It was a big lie and he knew it.

While I welcome Dr. Gemma's eleventh hour conversion, it's hypocritical of him to now side with HIS charter school.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 10, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

With our current high schools preparing most of their students neither for college nor for the job market a lot of competition would seem to be a useful addition.

Like this comment
Posted by WhoRUpeople
a resident of another community
on Nov 11, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Ugh, I thought I had endured the last I had to hear from Gemma. POGO, thank you for your post, All I can add is DITTO; and btw, count your fingers if you believe he is sincere and not looking for a role for himself.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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