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May 4, 2013
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Charting a new course? Nevada County charter schools present choice, competition

Among all the educational options, figuring out which school to choose can be a confusing process, requiring parents to sift through informational pamphlets, take campus tours and analyze what each facility has to offer their child. And sometimes, the parents then have simply to hope their child gets into their school of choice.

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“You really have to go to the school and see them talk about their program and judge what they’re saying versus what you know about your child,” said Monique Bluvas, whose son will enter kindergarten in the fall.

“I don’t know what (my son) is going to want. Grass Valley Charter (School) looks like they do a ton of activities, but Nevada City School of the Arts teaches through arts, which is fascinating. We’re in the preschool program at Union Hill, so we feel like family.”

For charter schools with more applicants than availability, a lottery takes place, the process for which is different at each school and adds another layer of confusion, Bluvas said.

“I just don’t know how he’s going to fare, and we’ve got so many options,” she said. “It seems like everybody’s just kind of hanging out, doing the same thing, waiting for that lottery ball to drop.”

Some of these options have made charter schools more attractive and helped evolve the educational landscape of Nevada County, as some of the community’s oldest traditional schools have closed in the face of declining enrollment while the number of students continues to rise in most charter schools.

Fifteen years ago, Grass Valley Charter operated out of a group of modular classrooms on the Hennessy School campus with an enrollment of 116 students, according to the California Department of Education.

The program has since seen steady growth with enrollment increasing to 211 in 2005 and necessitating a move to the former Bell Hill School site. This school year, with an enrollment of 448 students, the school moved back to the Hennessy campus, which was closed by the Grass Valley School District last summer.

Similarly, Yuba River Charter School, whose enrollment has grown to 312 students in 2012-13, now serves students on the former site of Nevada City Elementary.

And the largest charter school in the community, Forest Charter School, currently boasts an enrollment of 676 students.

After the Nevada City School District closed Nevada City Elementary in 2010, after 74 years in operation, and Gold Run Elementary in June 2011, the district was left with one traditional elementary school, Deer Creek, and one middle school, Seven Hills. Grass Valley School District now has one traditional elementary school in Margaret Scotten Elementary and one middle school, Lyman Gilmore.

With the reduction of schools within both districts, Grass Valley and Nevada City schools have considered consolidating into one district but decided to postpone the process as of February 2013 until the state budget is finalized.

Growth in choice

Charter schools — tuition-free public schools that are bound by state standards but that have more flexibility in how they operate and instruct than traditional public schools — have driven a wedge in the public school system.

According to the California Department of Education, there are currently 982 active charter schools in the state, comprising 6 percent of the public school population.

Among the 12,514 students enrolled in public schools in Nevada County, about 2,232 students, or 18 percent, attend charter schools.

The first local charter school was Grass Valley Charter, which opened in 1993, two years after Minnesota became the first state to pass a charter school law.

“Most of the charter schools in Nevada County started when the movement first began in California,” Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Holly Hermansen said. “Parents in Nevada County wanted educational options for their children, and some wanted alternative educational models that were not available in traditional schools.”

Many local charter schools are under the helm of the Nevada County Charter Cooperative, a network that includes Bitney College Prep High School, Forest Charter, Nevada City School of the Arts, Sierra Montessori Academy, Twin Ridges Home Study and Yuba River Charter.

Local charter school options include home study programs, where students are assigned an educational specialist who prepares an individual learning plan for the student to complete at home; five-day-per-week schools set up like traditional schools; and a mix of both, with enrichment classes and independent study. Many charters offer a specific learning model with a focus for each school, which might not primarily focus on teaching to meet state standards in the way of a traditional school and instead attempt to incorporate the standards into their own curriculum.

“We don’t take a textbook and say, ‘This is where you are in the book today, tomorrow, in six months; but we develop our own curriculum, look at all the standards we are supposed to be teaching and make sure we get those standards,” said Janice Bedayn, development coordinator of Nevada City School of the Arts, which opened in 1994.

“We believe that it better informs the academic curriculum when you understand, for instance, ancient Greece, (and that) will be reinforced through artisan residents who work with each main lesson teacher. Together they will develop an art curriculum that goes hand in hand with the academic curriculum,” she said.

Grass Valley Charter offers a mix of independent study and five-day classes and follows an expeditionary learning model, which involves thematic-based teaching that focuses on experiences and activism rather than exclusively listening and working in the classroom. The expeditionary learning model will soon be offered locally at the high school level (See story Page A7).

“Students learn regular grade-level standards that every student in California has to learn, wrapped in thematic teaching,” said Alex Ezzell, adventure learning teacher at Grass Valley Charter. “Part of our jobs as teachers is to craft those expeditions to engage students in the process.”

Sierra Montessori Academy opened in 2004 and follows the independent thinking and mixed-age classroom setup of the Montessori method. It is the only charter school in South County and has seen a stable population (86 students in 2012-13) since its inception, said Director Henry Bietz.

“Right now we’re the only charter school (in the immediate area) and we draw students from north Placer County as well as South County,” Bietz said. “We try to understand the individual needs of the students, both academically and socially. We’re not focused as much on the state testing and standards and focus on meeting students where they are, rather than students having to be where we want them to be.”

Yuba River Charter opened in 1994 and offers home study, as well as a regular schedule, and follows the Waldorf teaching method that focuses on stages of development in a child’s learning and incorporates academic, practical and artistic values.

Bitney College Preparatory High School, which began instruction in 1999, is a five-day-per-week school and limits enrollment (84 students in 2012-13) to focus on personal attention to students. Each student must apply to a four-year university as part of the school’s goal of high academic achievement and preparation for college.

Some charter schools offer independent study but have optional enrichment classes, as well.

Twin Ridges Home Study is a charter school that opened in 1978 as an independent study school and became a charter in the 1990s.

The school focuses on individual learning and environmental sustainability, with an on-site garden, solar panels and experiential learning. The school also offers enrichment classes where students can learn different topics in small groups, in addition to being home-schooled.

“It’s really about turning the classroom into a workshop instead of a traditional seat-based program,” said Jaynie Ayden, director of Twin Ridges Home Study.

Vantage Point Charter opened in 1989 as a small independent school in Ready Springs School, became Ready Springs Charter in 1993 and were eventually named their current moniker, said principal Thomas Bivens. “Vantage Point is a K-12 with individualized learning, which means we develop the pace per student after an assessment,” Bivens said.

Nevada City School District opened its charter program in 1994 as a transitional charter from an already established home-school program, which offers independent study and up to four days of enrichment classes.

“It’s their choice, depending on what works for them,” said Connie Harrar, director of Nevada City Charter and also an art and literacy program teacher. Harrar said the school aims to keep an intimate environment with its enrollment of about 60 students.

Forest Charter, which opened in 2002, claims the largest enrollment among local charter school programs. It offers independent study and blended programs with classroom and non-classroom learning in the form of co-ops, like the PACE program of enrichment classes for elementary and high school students.

“A child might be working at a first-grade level in math and a third-grade level in reading, so you start the curriculum where the child is,” said Heather Johnson, education specialist and PACE program teacher at Forest Charter. “It’s a blended program where the students meet in the classrooms half the week, where we do a lot more with hands-on experiences, group learning experiments, and parent continue home-schooling kids at home with individual attention.”

Forest Charter, like other charter schools, also has an instructional budget students can apply for through their teacher if a student wants to take extracurricular classes such as music lessons or hire a tutor.

“We pay directly to the person providing the service and we interview every person we work with, so we know what kind of program they’re running,” said Forest Charter Director Peter Sagebiel.

One of the features of many charters is a small, intimate school environment or one-on-one learning through independent study.

“We’ve reached a growth point that we wanted to get to and don’t want to get much past this, because we feel we would lose intimacy with the school,” Sagebiel said. “If we get too much bigger, we’d have to hire more people and we’d have to get significantly bigger to get the economics to work out.”

Balancing enrollment with purpose

When a charter school has more applicants than room, the school offers a lottery system in which names are pulled at random — though most offer a tiered priority to current students and siblings, as well as family members of staff.

“Each charter petition will designate its priority for its lottery and process,” said Grass Valley Charter Principal Brian Martinez.

“We have some different programs that give students priority like the home study program, then after that, everyone’s name gets put in the hat and it’s a straight lottery draw for everyone else.”

The lottery system has been a point of frustration for parents interested in placing their child in a highly popular charter school.

Though there is priority for students who have already been enrolled in the school, parents have to re-register every year in advance in order for the schools to assess the number of vacancies available for their enrollment lottery.

“Sometimes it takes a year, maybe longer, and then those people usually give up and put their kids somewhere else or try again for the next year,” said Deanne Mediati, parent of Grass Valley Charter students.

The random-assignment lottery was found to be unfair by many parents, Mediati said, because it gave no preference to parents who have repeatedly tried to enroll.

Some charter schools in high demand have had to decide whether to expand their programs or stay small.

Mediati, who had children attend Grass Valley Charter in the late ’90s, said the school’s expansion has lost its intimate environment and charm.

“The small, little school was better,” Mediati said. “When it first opened and my kids were there, there were only 20 students with three or four classrooms. Then it went from a small unique charter school to a big school with at least 30 or more in the classroom.”

Martinez said the charter’s unique expeditionary learning model is still upheld through the school’s teachers, who set the tone for the learning environment.

“We were increasing enrollment and wanted more students to access our programs, and we needed a bigger campus,” Martinez said. “I think there’s always a relationship between the size of a school and how intimate it feels, but there’s certainly ways to mitigate that feeling by having more opportunities for parents to connect, and the teacher is really where that feeling of close-knit or welcoming is.”

As charter schools in such high demand attempt to strike that balance, the parents seeking seats in their classrooms continue to examine all available options while awaiting word on whether their child will have the opportunity to actually attend.

“Everybody does their lottery at different times, so we just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Bluvas, who is researching her son’s kindergarten options at Union Hill, Yuba River Charter, Nevada City School of the Arts, Grass Valley Charter and Bell Hill Academy, a public elementary school with a global studies program.

“We’re just in this holding pattern … all I want is a yes.”

To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email jterman@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

“I just don’t know how he’s going to fare, and we’ve got so many options. It seems like everybody’s just kind of hanging out, doing the same thing, waiting for that lottery ball to drop.”

— Monique Bluvas,
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The Union Updated Sep 26, 2013 12:37AM Published May 6, 2013 12:52PM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.