facebook tracking pixel Vote to close Nevada City Charter School | TheUnion.com

Vote to close Nevada City Charter School

Sam Corey
Staff Writer

Nevada City Charter School is closing.

The Nevada City School District Board of Trustees unanimously voted to not renew the charter, thereby closing the 24-year-old school after the end of the school year.

The meeting at the school’s district office was packed. A huddled mass of people leaked out of the open back door, trying to catch a glimpse of the superintendent and board members sitting up front. Parents and kids, awaiting the meeting planned six days prior, mostly stood behind the 12 chairs made available for attendees, hoping for the best and dreading the worst.

Superintendent and Principal Trisha Dellis made sure to inform the crowd that “none of (the students) have done anything wrong,” and that they were not to be blamed. Many of those students, as well as their parents, sported Nevada City Charter School T-shirts, with the signature owl on the front. Others held signs saying “We Love Nevada City Charter.”

For those aspiring to save the school, however, their worst fears were affirmed.

Low Test Scores

Nevada City Charter School was voted to not be renewed because of low test scores, specifically those related to the math portion of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress. Those results, in addition to results from the slightly lower English Language Arts/Literacy section, were well below that of Nevada County and California schools.

The decline of math scores at the charter school slightly precedes the arrival of Common Core Math, a new strategy for learning math, which became mandated by California schools in the fall of 2014, and was tested statewide by the spring of 2015.

In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the percentage of students who met or exceeded the standard of achievement on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress in math was 9, 16 and 18 percent, respectively. These low scores, according to the superintendent, were cause for closing the school.

“The board is required to consider academic performance as the most important factor when reviewing renewal,” said Dellis at the meeting. The charter school, she added, has not been keeping up with state standards, which is why she advocated its closure.

The school’s closing was not related to students who had not taken the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, according to Board President Sandy Hakala. The academic performance of Nevada City Charter School students only included those who participated in taking the statewide test.

“I want to correct what appears to be a common misconception,” said Hakala at the meeting. “Those students who opt out of testing and receive a zero do not bring down the average.”

‘Where was the accountability?’

While it was no surprise the superintendent and board members were focusing on low test scores at the meeting, there was shock as to why parents and teachers were not informed about the issue prior to last week, and that they didn’t have more time to try to remedy the problem.

“One question that keeps coming to mind,” said parent Dawn Simmons at the meeting. “Where was the accountability? There has been no communication of concern to the charter school that it would not be renewed.”

Austin Wilson, parent to a former student at the Nevada City Charter School, highlighted the collective anguish at the sudden push to close the school.

“I think it can be repaired,” said Wilson at the meeting, “as soon as there’s a conversation about repairing the problem. (Instead), it’s, ‘Oh, everything’s fine until we cut your head off.’”

Distress was not shared by parents and students alone, however, but also by teachers. Michael Pettengill, a teacher at the school, known fondly as “Mr. Mike,” said the teachers were not aware the closing of the school was an urgent issue, and when he brought up the opportunity to petition against the school’s closing, his sentiment was dismissed.

“At our last charter meeting (in November),” said Pettengill on Tuesday night, “we sat down and said, ‘We need to take a look at this charter.’ And (the response) was, ‘Well, we need to put (that) on hold because there are other things going on.’”

But November’s charter meeting was not the first time Pettengill and teachers brought up the immanent issue of the school’s renewal.

“We had mentioned this two years ago, that charter renewal will come up, and we should do something about it,” he said. “We just didn’t get the direction that we needed.”

Dellis said she has no memory of Pettengill’s November remarks. “My recollection is that the renewal was not agendized and he is the president of the charter council, and it was not on the agenda.”

Dellis and the board members knew nothing of a potential vote to close the school until last month, according to Hakala.

In an email to The Union, Hakala wrote that the board did not begin discussing the possibility of the school closing “until the January 2019 meeting when Dellis shared her concerns with the Board in open session regarding the Charter School’s academic performance.”

A Little History

Within the last decade, two other schools have closed in the Nevada City School District. First, there was Nevada City Elementary in 2010.

Before the school closure, a committee was constructed in March 2010 to take a look at the viability of both Nevada City Elementary and Gold Run School schools. Two months later, in May, Nevada City Elementary school had shut its doors. Many of the students from Nevada City Elementary went to Gold Run School.

About one year later, though, in April of 2011, Gold Run School was voted to be shut down, too. The issues faced by the schools included an unbalanced budget and dwindling enrollment numbers.

‘The Greatest Educational Experience’

While some test scores are low today, Nevada City Charter School’s test results used to augment a district that was once on par with some of California’s top schools, according to Hakala.

“I am aware that at one time, (Nevada City School District) was competing with Marin County schools, which were considered the best in California,” she said at the meeting.

Nevada City Charter School has a non-traditional model, whereby parents homeschool their children for part of the week, investing more in their educational lives than typical. Matriculated students of this educational style at Nevada City Charter School attended the meeting, in addition to the current students and their parents.

“I attended Nevada City Charter in eighth grade, and it was the greatest educational experience of my school career,” said alumnus Lindy Oliver. Oliver’s sentiment was repeated by many current students and parents at the school.

As the meeting progressed, tears could be seen and muffled cries could be heard around the room.

“Choosing to close the only charter school in the district would be a disservice to the community,” said parent Stacey Smith, who has two kids that attend the school.

“We’re heartbroken for students and families,” Pettengill added.

While the solemnity has remained, a few days later, Pettengill added a bit of optimism, at least with regards to the future of the school’s students. The tests, he said, are not the things that will define them.

“For our kids, we know that they will go on and do great things.”

What’s Next?

There are a lot of questions as to what will potentially fill the space that was Nevada City Charter School. Dellis makes clear that since the charter school was voted to not be renewed, rather than be revoked, it cannot be appealed. However, parents do have another option, as it was suggested after Tuesday’s public meeting.

“(Parents) can bring forth a new charter,” said Dellis, essentially, starting the school over again from scratch. This time, she said, there would have to be a greater emphasis on teaching and practicing Common Core Math.

“If (the charter) were a home study, you would have to find ways to mitigate the Common Core standards needed to be covered.”

You can reach Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at scorey@theunion.com.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.