A public hearing on a Mandarin immersion charter school that has been proposed in the Menlo Park City School District drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 people on Tuesday night, Oct. 14.
The district's board has a little less than a month before it must decide whether to authorize the proposed charter school. Charter founders want to start with 100 total students in two classes each of kindergarteners and first-graders in the fall of 2015, expanding by one grade level each year with the ultimate goal of a K-8th grade school with 450 students.
There was lots of applause, and even a few standing ovations, on both sides of the issue as the audience had a chance to talk about why they do, or do not, support the petition for the proposed charter school.
A longtime Menlo Park resident and former district science teacher made a plea for civility in the debate. "We want to model how we want our children to behave," said Nancy Rankin. Ms. Rankin said she was "chilled" by some negative online posts about the charter founders. "Change is scary," she said. "That fear often turns to anger and anger sometimes can be very destructive."
Carol Cunningham, a district resident and mother of a kindergartener and preschooler, made a presentation about the school to lead off the hearing. "The founders of the Menlo Mandarin Immersion Charter School are here tonight because we ultimately believe in having the freedom of choice and expanded opportunities for Menlo Park families when it comes to public education," she said.
That idea did not sit well with several teachers who spoke. "I believe the children of parents in Menlo Park have many choices in the types of educational opportunities that are offered," including Spanish immersion, art, music, PE, librarians, science labs, multi-age learning and school gardens, said Sheila Warren, a librarian at Laurel School and co-president of the Menlo Park Education Association. "We are continually striving to be better and are continually meeting our goals for high achievement," Ms. Warren said. "We set the bar high and we go after it."
But Ms. Cunningham said the state's charter law does not require charters be only in troubled districts. "Nowhere in the law does it state that charters were intended to benefit only poor-performing, failing or struggling public school districts. Charters are intended to benefit all kids," Ms. Cunningham said.
Several speakers urged the charter backers to withdraw their petition. "I really invite, request, beseech, beg, the Mandarin immersion charter advocates to reconsider and withdraw their petition and work within our community to bring about the change that we all are interested in, in improving and expanding foreign language opportunities for our children," said Neil Swartzberg, a district parent. "Specifically in the context of the charter school law, while they may, and I'll stress may, be legally entitled to pursue and even potentially obtain a charter school, just because you can do this under the law doesn't mean that you have to actually, in our community, pursue it."
Other parents said they worry the charter will take money from the district's existing programs. "I am very concerned about the introduction of a charter school into our district," said Sydney Merk. "I worry about our district not having control of a program that would be draining resources from our kids."
But Ms. Cunningham said that because the charter school would require less money per pupil from the district than is currently spent educating each student, the district would not lose money as long as fewer than 50 percent of the charter students come from outside the district.
"With the data that we know today, such as the district's over-enrollment situation, the financial impact will likely be inconsequential to beneficial," she said. "These are still district kids that will need space, anyway."
The grounds on which the district board can make a decision on the charter school are limited by the state law, and some of the speakers tried to give the board some of those reasons to use. One of the grounds is whether or not the school is likely to succeed in implementing the program outlined in its petition.
"I do not think the charter will be successful if it does not have the support of our community," said Caryn Wasserstein, a district parent. She and other parents started their own petition in opposition to the school on Oct. 6 and by Oct. 14 had more than 1,000 signatures, she said. "The support of the community is just not there."
Arlina Ahluwalia said she supports the charter school. "We should embrace this group's proposal," she said.
A similar program in Palo Alto has far more applicants than it has room for and Menlo Park's Spanish immersion program turns down two out of three applicants, Ms. Ahluwalia said. "Let the charter take a bunch of district kids off the district roster," she said. "Don't let doors close for our Menlo Park kids."
If the district board turns down the charter, backers may appeal to the county school board, and if that fails, to the state board of education.
The district has scheduled a study session focusing on the charter proposal at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 27, in the district office TERC Building, 181 Encinal Ave. in Atherton. The board is scheduled to make its final decision on the proposal at a meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 12, in the same location. That meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. The districts has a list of frequently asked questions and answers on the proposal on its website as well as a copy of the Menlo Mandarin Immersion School petition.
Opponents of the project have a petition at Change.org.