Op-Ed

Op-Ed

Summit Charter School: An urging to the Ojai Unified School Board

By Andy Gilman
Dec. 13, the Ojai Unified School District Board will vote on whether to approve the Summit Charter School petition for the creation of a new transitional kindergarten to eighth grade public school. The proposed location is the former Summit Elementary campus in Upper Ojai, but the location is a separate decision for the school board. I strongly encourage the board to consider the proposal, rise above misleading objections, work with the Summit Charter School Board, and approve the petition. 
In 2004, my two younger children attended Open Classroom, a progressive K-5 public co-op that was part of Ventura Unified School District. Open Classroom wished to grow to a K-8 school with more autonomy. We strove to work with the Ventura school board, but were met with so much resistance that we pursued a charter. The Ventura school board denied the petition, and the county of Ventura thereafter approved it. That was the creation of Ventura Charter School, which, 13 years later, continues to serve more than 400 students. 
Many of the objections about the current Summit Charter petition echo the Ventura Charter hearings. Let me address them again here:
1. Charter schools are really publicly funded private schools. They can accept who they want and don’t have public school requirements.
No.
Charter schools are public schools, funded as all public schools are, and must teach and test to the state standards. Its teachers meet all the same criteria. The school must accept students who apply and, if there are more applications than spots, a public lottery takes place. But charters can also have focus areas. In Summit Charter School, the relationship-based curriculum will emphasize environmental science, sustainability, and cultural literacy. There will be multi-age groupings and strong Spanish language acquisition. Charters control their own finances, which allows for greater responsiveness, reduced hierarchy, and more money for classrooms.
2. Charter schools are bad, most fail, and there is high staff turnover. 
No.
There are many sides to complicated issues, and to get the facts takes time and open mindedness. Do some charter schools fail? Of course. Do some succeed? Of course. In 2017–18, the number of charter school students in California was approximately 628,849, or 10%. (www.cde.ca.gov). Be wary of blanket statements and judge a school by its merits. On the staff question, Summit Charter School is already receiving more teacher and administrator interest than there will be spots. There is real excitement about this approach.  
3. We don’t need this. Our public schools are doing these things already.
No and yes.
More than 100 students and their families in Ojai Unified School District have indicated that they intend to enroll in Summit Charter School if it opens in Fall 2020. There is a need that is not being met within our district. I believe that OUSD is on the right track, and I have and will support these changes. Almost no one would say that everything is great in our public education system and that nothing needs to improve. There are also multiple ways to achieve the goal of great education. We have many private schools in Ojai. We know that the progressive curriculum Summit Charter School is offering will bring some of those families back to public education. We know because they told us. 
4. Multi-age classrooms don’t work. 
Be wary of blanket statements!
An article in American Association of School Administrators points out, “When it came to the impact of multi-age grouping on student achievement, study results were mixed” (www.aasa.org). There are many fewer multi-age classrooms than in the past, and the article addresses several reasons. It also points out the social benefits of multi-age classrooms. The better questions seem to be: Where does this work best? What teachers have experience making this thrive? Let’s bring them on board so our families can have greater choice. And that is what we are doing. 
5. Charters siphon off needed district resources. 
This is the most common concern. Funds do not belong to a district. They belong to the student. By default, the public school district administers the funds with the goal of educating the student. The charter would be fulfilling that mission. But it’s more nuanced. The relationship between the charter and the district can be mutually beneficial: 
a) The charter hires the district to help with its back-office services, pays for oversight, pays a pro-rata share for assistance with supporting students with special needs along with the district receiving all charter year-one special education funding. All of this and more can be agreed upon between the district and the charter.
b) The charter can bring more students from local private schools and out-of-district families who want this approach.
c) Some people move to Ojai for the private schools. We all know that. Some people move from Ojai to Ventura to attend Ventura Charter School. Imagine if people moved to Ojai for our public schools, and that Summit Charter School is just one of the jewels in Ojai Unified School District’s collection of offerings. 
It really can be this way. 
Ojai Unified School District will have to adjust if Summit Charter opens, but it is already adjusting to community requests and concerns. I hope that, for the benefit of these families who want something different, OUSD will work in the spirit of collaboration.  
I encourage you to read about the school at www.summitcharterschoolojai.org and judge for yourself. If you think this approach should be given strong consideration, let our OUSD elected school board know. Thank you.

 

— Andy Gilman of Ojai is an Agora Foundation director and Summit Charter School board member.
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