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East Palo Alto charter school wins county approval

Oxford Day Academy to open fall 2017

Two months after the Sequoia Union High School District board voted down Oxford Day Academy's petition to open a public charter high school in East Palo Alto, the San Mateo County Office of Education gave the school its unanimous stamp of approval.

Founder Mallory Dwinal won the county board's support 7-0 on Wednesday, Aug. 24, after appealing the Sequoia Union board's June decision. An 11-member team from the county Office of Education -- including senior administrators, lead deputy county counsel, an English learner support services coordinator and special-education administrator -- reviewed the charter petition and found that it met all five criteria laid out in the state Education Code.

"Our County Board of Education takes very seriously its role as an appellate body and we carefully weigh all the issues involved in a charter appeal," county board President Jim Cannon said in a statement provided to the Palo Alto Weekly. "In the case of the Oxford Day Academy, our Board unanimously felt that the Oxford Day charter proposal presented an innovative, well-conceived educational plan that will provide another educational option for students in the Sequoia Union High School District, especially those students living in East Palo Alto, East Menlo Park, and Redwood City."

The tuition-free Oxford Day Academy, which is now slated to open in August 2017, uses an instructional approach based on that of the prestigious Oxford University in England (from where Dwinal graduated). The school uses a tutorial model that asks students to learn core academic skills through in-depth projects with real-world applications in their community, like looking at local crime rates as part of a math problem or writing a grant application for a local school in need of funding, Dwinal said in a previous interview.

Teachers and "socio-emotional learning coaches" work with students in small groups on a daily basis in a multi-grade, interdisciplinary "learning studio."

The school also emphasizes community connections, culture, service, social justice and leadership.

The Sequoia Union school board voted against the school's petition 3-2, expressing concerns that the petition did not meet required standards in several areas. Staff, which recommended the board reject the charter, had identified concerns about curriculum, enrollment and budget.

Despite the county review team's supportive recommendation, its report, too, pointed to some areas of deficiency. Two topics lacked a "reasonably comprehensive description," including for services for both English-language learners and special-education students, the report states.

It also recommends that "given the breadth and scope of the curriculum ODA describes ... it is critical for ODA to clearly develop its curriculum with sufficient specificity to ensure teachers have adequate understanding and support to address students' needs."

"The ODA educational program would benefit from fully developed and detailed phasing and professional development plans to ensure strategic program support and implementation," the report states.

Calling Oxford Day Academy's program "rich," "innovative" and ambitious," the county also "strongly" recommended that Oxford Day Academy increasing its projected staffing for the first year of operation from three to four teachers.

The county school board also opted to give Oxford Day Academy a three- instead of five-year charter, Dwinal said because its model is "so different and so new."

"The model is completely different from anything we've seen before and they want to be cautious in making sure it does right by kids," she said.

Dwinal plans to open Oxford Day Academy next fall, starting with about 68 freshmen and building capacity by one grade level each subsequent year, according to the county report. The school hopes to serve 272 students by the 2020-21 school year.

The school will be open to all students living in the Sequoia Union High School District, but will primarily target students from East Palo Alto and Redwood City.

The school will begin as a pilot this year, and is looking to work with students who are not attending school during the day for whatever reason, whether they are being homeschooled or might have just left the juvenile justice system, Dwinal said. Students will get academic credit in exchange for the work that they do, allowing the school to work out any kinks in advance of opening next year.

Dwinal has yet to find a physical space to house the school, but was waiting to do so in earnest until the charter was approved, she said. The county's report cautions that there is a "limited amount of available space in East Palo Alto."

Oxford Day Academy is the latest in a handful of new schools set to open in East Palo Alto. The Ravenswood City School District board recently approved a TK-8 KIPP Bay Area School, also set to open next fall, and Priscilla Chan, wife of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, is planning to open a free, private pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school in East Palo Alto called The Primary School.

The Sequoia Union school district currently sponsors two independent charter high schools, Summit Prep Charter and Everest Public in Redwood City. It also supports East Palo Alto Academy (EPAA), which was launched by and receives support from the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, as a dependent charter school.

Two other charter schools also operate within the Ravenswood City School District boundaries in East Palo Alto: the K-6 East Palo Alto Charter School and the 7-12 East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy. Both are operated by the charter organization Aspire Public Schools, though the Sequoia school district previously sponsored East Palo Alto Phoenix, according to the district.

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