Orland charter fights to survive

School’s principal faced with completing petition by June

ON CAMPUS <br> Math teacher Phil Dunning works in one of the handful of classrooms at William Finch School in Orland, where many of the courses are done independently at home.

Math teacher Phil Dunning works in one of the handful of classrooms at William Finch School in Orland, where many of the courses are done independently at home.

Photo By elizabeth gomez

There sure has been a lot of controversy surrounding William Finch Charter School in Orland and Willows lately. Anyone who lives in Glenn County or reads the Sacramento Valley Mirror has probably heard rumors that the school—an alternative to regular public schools—might not be around next semester.

According to most involved, however, including school administrators and the superintendent himself, that’s not likely. There’s just a lot of work to be done to get the charter to a point where the board will approve it.

William Finch is no ordinary K-12 school. What started out as an independent-study program in 1985 was turned into a charter school in 2001. Enrollment is at about 150. The structure allows students to take some classes in a physical classroom and others at home, with teachers making home visits and often sticking with the same students throughout their educational career.

One William Finch teacher, Elaine Pimentel, says the school is different because it’s individualized, it allows teachers to focus on different needs for different students, and it offers a one-on-one relationship between teacher and student.

“Not all students thrive in a traditional school setting,” she said.

William Finch is anything but traditional. The campuses are small—the one in Orland has four classrooms and a lab, and the other in Willows houses just two classrooms. Some of those rooms are also used by Glenn County’s adult-education program.

“People’s normal idea of a school is a room with desks and a teacher in the front teaching at a strict schedule,” said William Finch teacher Cindy Thompson. “Because it’s different from what they’re used to, [some people] automatically think negatively about it.”

But there have been some negative marks recently. For one, the school’s test scores are low compared with other schools in the county. Its API (Academic Performance Index) score has hovered around a 4, the lowest in the district and the lowest allowed for the charter to continue, for the past three years.

“You allow a charter to exist because their goal is that they can do it better than the neighborhood school,” Glenn County schools Superintendent Arturo Barrera said. “In this particular case, William Finch hasn’t been rising to that level.”

Nevertheless, he sees the school as a valuable asset to the community. For some, the different learning environment is preferable to that of a regular school; for others, it is their last chance at making it through the school system.

As far as getting the charter renewed, the petition is currently in the hands of William Finch Principal Susan Domenighini. Before the school board can approve (or deny) the charter’s renewal, a completed petition must be submitted. The petition already brought before the board was deemed incomplete.

“We do have a document that was presented to us, but it didn’t meet state standards,” said board member Eugene Massa Jr.

“The petition as written was somewhat weak,” said Barrera. “The approach that the charter staff took was to be more general, and it really needs to be more specific as far as its educational goals and how it’s going to achieve those goals.”

Among the goals: how to raise test scores, including specific goals to make sure all students—especially those for whom William Finch is a last chance at an education—are meeting high expectations and that the teachers are putting in that extra effort where it is needed.

“I’d like to see the school make sure that all the students get a quality education. Obviously there are some students who are very bright, but there are quite a few students who are struggling,” Barrera said. “The easy ones are those high achievers. But for William Finch to improve and get their API scores up, they’re going to have to get everyone to come along.”

Domenighini seems up to the task. She explained that when the most recent test scores came in, she and the teachers sat down and discussed strategies for raising future scores. Among them was adding a history class. Math teacher Phil Dunning volunteered for the job.

“We currently have a diversified student body, which allows great interaction on current and past topics,” he said.

“I like William Finch because it gives parents the opportunity to home-school their children so that there is more one-on-one interaction,” said Kimberly Rodrigues, who has sent seven of her eight children to the school. “There isn’t pressure that traditional school has. It also gives you the opportunity to incorporate your own beliefs into your children’s curriculum.”

And the students work hard, too, despite low test scores. The William Finch academic decathlon team has won the Glenn County competition four years in a row.

“I could work at my own pace, and there wasn’t any peer pressure, said Gina Martinez, a graduate now attending Butte College while also working at the school. “The curriculum was more personalized to my interests. But at the same time it met California standards.”

Domenighini is receiving assistance from various departments of the county Office of Education to get data needed to complete the petition. She plans to have a completed document ready to submit to the board at its June 17 meeting.

One of the reasons the board is being so meticulous about this petition, Barrera said, is because it was actually up for renewal three years ago and either it was forgotten about or someone was unclear about the timeline (the board approved the original charter in 2001, but it wasn’t submitted to the state—making it official—until 2004).

“The board wants to make sure that the charter is a well-written, clear charter and that we all understand each other’s responsibilities and that the charter staff understands that the expectation is high for them to make sure that they are to give all children a good chance of success.”

While the administration, both at the school and the Office of Education, is confident the charter will be renewed, parents, teachers and students are still on edge—and probably will be until it gets the stamp of approval.

“I needed an alternative to traditional school, and that’s what I found at William Finch,” said Mariah Garcia, a senior at the school. “The supportive environment and caring staff and individual education choices are what every student deserves. Community support and knowledge of our school will go a long way, and that’s what we really need right now.”