Can you describe where the current process stands in terms of the development of the Charter School and also what will be happening at the Monday (tonight) Evening Meeting?
At this time we have nearly completed the charter document after months of collective development with many community members, teachers and parents. The charter is the petition that will be brought before staff and parents for their signatures within the next few weeks to indicate their interest in the school. We have been publicizing the meeting with flyers, appearances by Dweezil (our mascot) at Farmer’s Market, and much conversation with anyone who will listen.
Monday [tonight] evening at 7:00 in the Valley Oak multi-purpose room, teachers who have been active in the school’s development will be describing the charter to the public, putting flesh on the bones for parents so they can have an accurate read of the school we propose for their neighborhood. There is much to tell, as schools are complicated, and the notion of “charter school” is new to Davis, so we have some explaining to do. There will be a panel of five teachers representing the various grade levels and disciplines, including primary and intermediate grades, English Language learners, and a clear description of what we mean by a “high tech magnet school.”
This meeting will be followed by a signature-gathering campaign, with eventual submission to the Board of Education for their review and hopefully their approval.
Have there been any pitfalls or problems that have occurred along the way?
I have to honestly say it has been an outstanding and gratifying experience. I have told colleagues of mine at other Davis schools that every school should find themselves threatened with closure, because it is in that process of thinking “Why me?” that you discover what you are as an institution. Terminal self-examination is very exhilarating, something akin to St. Peter looking down at you from the pearly gates and saying, “So, what do you have to say for yourself?!” What my colleagues and I discovered was a school that absolutely must exist, a neighborhood institution worth an enormous investment of energy. The fact we have had to make that investment has been a distraction from other professional work we would have done if we hadn’t been fighting to save a vital institution, but we didn’t choose this fight. It came to us. That really has been the only pitfall. In all, those of us who have come to believe even more deeply in this school have been brought to a high pitch of directed energy to do the right thing, and that is a good thing for teachers to create together, and something very enriching for the kids they teach.
Has the district for the most part been supportive of these efforts?
We are most fortunate that Superintendent Whitmore was formerly Director of the Charter Division for California Department of Education. District staff has been responsive to our desire to create a high-quality school with a charter document that serves the interests of all stakeholders, including the district, to the greatest extent possible. They seem to respect our wish to remain in conversation with them as we wrap our minds around this very complex task. Besides Supt. Whitmore, district staff has a wealth of experience in running schools, and they have answered our questions and have met with us very freely.
What advantages to the students will the Valley Oak Charter School Offer?
First of all, they will retain the ability to attend Valley Oak, their neighborhood school which has distinguished itself not only in its academic performance for all its students, but in the innovative programs only found at Valley Oak, its deliberately caring and inclusive school culture, and its rich ethnic diversity. Additionally, the charter is developing a vision of taking concrete steps in using technology to bring a Valley Oak education fully into the 21st century with carefully planned innovation and ground-up technology training for students, teachers, and parents.
Also, a neighborhood school is the cultural center of any neighborhood, and as such imparts real value, monetary value, to area homes. Neighborhoods that have to ship their children miles away to school lose value, particularly in a competitive real estate market. Add to that a school district with no bus transportation for its students, a practice based on the concept that Davis is organized around bike-ride-distance neighborhood schools, and removing Valley Oak Elementary would cripple this particular neighborhood. A neighborhood losing real value along with its cultural anchor is not good for kids and families; period.
In addition to the excellent English Learner’s program, is the Charter School looking to create any new sorts of programs?
As I mentioned above, we are making very specific plans to use technology in a way that the technology gap is addressed in a systematic way, while connecting parents and the community to bring them into the culture of the school. We have commitments of support from various sectors of the region who are poised to help us develop this vision the moment we have an approved charter. Obviously, some of this is quite funding-dependent, but with our combination of on-site education technology expertise, our outside institutional sponsors, and our in-city technology support, we will be in a very healthy position to attract the funding we need.
Is the Charter being written to attract new students from both across the district as well as outside of the district?
Yes. The charter is being written to give enrollment preference to our traditional neighborhood population. Any remaining space will be available to any student in the state, and remaining slots will be filled by lottery from the pool of applicants from within the non-neighborhood Davis students and out-of-district applicants, all being given equal consideration. Magnet schools have a history of long waiting lists, plus Davis turns away many intra-district transfers for lack of space, so we are optimistic that we will be able to fill the school.
Has the teacher’s association remained supportive of this endeavor? Are there assurances that teachers who teach in the charter will be able to retain their district positions including seniority?
Yes. In fact, we have received extensive technical support from the California Teacher’s Association. Teachers at the charter school will remain part of the DTA bargaining unit, thus retaining their salary and seniority considerations.
At this point, what are the prospects looking like for successful approval of the charter?
We are optimistic. We have worked hard to produce a top-notch document and are continuing to comb it for problems and pitfalls, and we continue to work to anticipate issues that might arise in its evaluation.
What does the time-line appear to be at this point?
We hope to have the document finished in the next couple weeks. We will be seeking signatures on the charter petition for another few weeks. Thanks to various statutory requirements we have a deadline of November 15th for submission to the Board of Education for their review.
Is the Valley Oak charter set to open in September of 2008 if all goes as planned?
That would be our intention, yes.
Is there anything else that I haven’t asked but should have?
We very much encourage parents to attend the meeting Monday evening. They will see that their charter school, while being a fresh idea in town, will still be a high-quality public school, with a professional teaching staff, deeply committed to the welfare and future of their kids. It would have been very easy for staff to move to a new school had they not believed in the heart of Valley Oak, both its kids and its neighborhood. Our jobs are secure, no matter where the kids go, but our job is to make the best decisions we can for kids, every day. Our position is that Valley Oak must stay there for the neighborhood, and we welcome all others to apply who wish to join the Valley Oak family. Following the public meeting, families can make their interest in Valley Oak Charter School by contacting a representative by e-mail, or by submitting information directly via a web form on the Valley Oak Charter School website, http://vocharter.org.
The Vanguard will be at this evening’s meeting and provide a full report on Tuesday morning.
—Doug Paul Davis reporting