Shopping for schools

Charters and choice are forcing Chico’s public schools to compete

CHARTER FAMILY <br> Amy Powers transferred her two kids, Daniel and Gabriella Rubio, to Chico Country Day School, a local charter, as an alternative to the public school system. This year Gabriella heads back into the system as a freshman at Pleasant Valley High.

Amy Powers transferred her two kids, Daniel and Gabriella Rubio, to Chico Country Day School, a local charter, as an alternative to the public school system. This year Gabriella heads back into the system as a freshman at Pleasant Valley High.

Photo By meredith j. cooper

One of the consequences of greater parental choice is that more and more children are being driven across town to school, rather than walking to their neighborhood school—thus increasing greenhouse-gas emissions, contrary to the city of Chico’s goal to reduce them.

On Aug. 26, the Board of Trustees of the Chico Unified School District will make a difficult decision: whether to approve an all-online charter school, operated by a nationwide for-profit company, that has the potential to attract nearly a thousand students.

The proposal is a stark reminder that education in Chico—and throughout California—is changing in dramatic and unpredictable ways.

For one thing, the online school’s teachers would be in Oklahoma, though California certified. They would interact with students—sixth- through 12th-graders—via two-way video connections, in a manner similar to that used by such private colleges as the University of Phoenix.

Of course, the trustees can refuse to approve the school if they don’t like it, but then it would just go elsewhere seeking authorization. Besides, explained board Chairwoman Jann Reed, “state guidelines on denial of charters are very limited; there are far more opportunities to become a charter school than not.”

Some people will prefer the program, Reed suggested. Because of its size, it can offer classes—she gave Latin as a possible example—that few schools provide. “But I worry that it will attract some kids who need more than an electronic education—kids who need to interact with other kids.”

Behold: the new consumerism in education.

CUSD Trustee Andrea Lerner-Thompson vividly remembers the day she realized just how radically education consumption had shifted.

A professor of English at Chico State University, she had assigned students to read a certain novel. When a young woman admitted she hadn’t read the book, Lerner-Thompson asked her to leave the classroom and come back when she’d done so.

To her shock, the student refused to leave. “You can’t ask me to leave,” she said. “I paid for this class. I paid for this hour.”

“When I was a student,” Lerner said, “it would never have occurred to me to say such a thing.”

Thirty years ago, Chico parents had few options other than their neighborhood school. Students could attend the Catholic school or one of the few church-operated Protestant schools. Today there are nearly 20 schools operating outside the CUSD in Chico.

The advent of open enrollment in the 1970s, allowing children to attend any school in the district as long as it had room for them, for the first time gave parents choices, as long as they were willing to drive their kids to school.

This desire for choice, among other factors, has since led to the creation of numerous alternatives and special programs within the district, including the Open-Structure Program at Hooker Oak, the Gifted and Talented Education program, the Academics Plus back-to-basics program, special-education classes, Spanish immersion, Advanced Placement in the high schools, home schooling, a continuation high school, Loma Vista School for handicapped children, the so-called academies (or smaller learning communities) at Chico High School, and more.

Meanwhile, outside the public schools, other, private alternatives were emerging: a Montessori school, the arts-based Progressive Schoolhouse, and several more religious schools.

The advent of charter schools in the late 1990s, however, led to an explosion of alternatives, some of them highly popular. The fact that, like the district’s schools, they’re taxpayer funded and thus free to attend has made the decision on whether to choose them strictly a matter of academic preference.

Chico Country Day School, a K-8 campus, has grown to 540 students since it was chartered in 1996 and now sometimes has more than 200 children on its waiting list, Principal Paul Weber reported. CORE Butte Charter School is a hybrid that combines augmented home schooling with classroom instruction and has nearly 400 students. And Blue Oak, a Waldorf school, has nearly 200 students.

Then there’s Learning Community Charter Schools, operated by the Butte County Office of Education, which offers two programs serving more than 500 students altogether: Hearthstone, a home-schooling program, and Four Winds School, which began as a school for Native American children but has expanded to include a diversity of students, most of them from low-income families.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the popularity of charter schools more than what’s happened at the outlying elementary schools in Forest Ranch and Nord. Until recently both were operated by the CUSD, but their enrollments were small, and the district closed them to save money. Community members hurriedly organized to re-open them as charters. Now both schools are doing so well they’re attracting students from Chico and have nearly doubled in size.

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What is it about charter schools that makes them so attractive?

Let’s first put that question in proper context: Most parents—by far—choose to send their kids to the public schools. The CUSD serves more than 13,000 students, while all the other schools in town—private, religious and charter—together serve fewer than 3,000.

But there’s no question that enrollment is declining in the CUSD, by about 100 students annually, said Jan Combes, the district’s assistant superintendent for business. That doesn’t seem like much, but it means the loss of $524,200 in attendance revenue each year, a significant hit.

CUSD Superintendent Kelly Staley is not happy about losing those 100 students. “Boy, that’s painful!” she said during a phone interview. But she added that California as a whole was declining in enrollment, and that the total number of school children in Chico was “staying pretty flat” from year to year, “not going up or down.”

Still, she acknowledged that more and more parents are choosing charters.

It’s hard to generalize about why they do so. Amy Powers, for example, put her kids in Chico Country Day School for reasons that had little to do with curriculum.

For complicated reasons, she had one child, a boy, at Neal Dow, and another, a girl, at Rosedale. Then she heard on the news that some kids had been caught bringing razor blades to Rosedale. She became worried and wanted to move her daughter, a fifth-grader, to another school. But the only choice the district gave her was to send the child to sixth grade at a junior high school.

She didn’t think her daughter was ready for that, and for a while was considering leaving Chico. Instead, she discovered Chico Country Day School, which by then had moved into her Barber neighborhood. Both of her children were accepted. “Boy, was I happy!” she said. “Both kids at the same school and right in our neighborhood.”

Since then, she’s gotten caught up in the parent participation that characterizes the school, volunteering in the library, helping with the “exploratory” classes (such things as cooking, guitar, sign language, construction and dance) on Fridays, and assisting in the desktop-publishing and newspaper classes.

That variety of offerings is one of the things charters have that the CUSD schools don’t. While the public schools are cutting back on music and fine arts for financial reasons, CCDS puts them and other electives at the forefront of its curriculum.

It’s able to do that because it’s less expensive to operate than a public school. CCDS is non-union, its benefits and compensation are less expensive, and it uses parent volunteers instead of paid custodians to do cleanup. In addition, it doesn’t offer expensive special-education classes, doesn’t keep a fleet of buses, has no programs for disabled kids, and has no English-learner program.

Those reduced expenses, along with the lack of restrictions on how it spends its money, allow it to be flexible and creative and offer parents choices, said Principal Weber.

“I think there’s been a misplaced sense on the part of the public-school system that it’s entitled to all of the kids,” he said. “But people have choice in all other areas. Why not schools?”

The success of schools like Chico Country Day has put pressure on the CUSD to respond creatively and competitively. One example is the new Inspire College Prep High School the trustees voted in May to approve for a three-year charter. It will be essentially a new high school within the existing Chico High.

Besides being a good way to offer another choice, Inspire has a financial advantage. Because it will be a distinct high school district, its students will generate a higher ADA figure—by about $1,000 per student.

Staley is enthused about the project. “If it works, it will certainly be a model that we can duplicate. That’s what we have to do: be nimbler and quicker. If we’re going to survive in a time of change, we’re going to have to be more creative in how we go about things.”

For her part, Staley wishes there were a way to make the entire CUSD a charter district. “If [unrestricted funding] is good for charters, why isn’t it good for the public schools?” she asked. “Make it a level playing field and let’s go at it.”

In the meantime, she said, the district was facing intense budget pressure because of cuts made in Sacramento and had no choice but to let class sizes go up in primary grades from 20 to—as she expects—26 or 27. “Now is the time for parents to get involved,” she said. Teachers need their help—and so do the students.

In the meantime, said Lerner-Thompson, the district needs to look at the charters to see what they’re doing right. She appreciates charters’ “can do” spirit and wishes more of them would, like Inspire, become part of the district and increase its diversity.

Because it’s so big and set in its ways, public education is hard to change—like “turning around an ocean liner,” she said, using a simile nearly everyone interviewed for this story also used. It tends to be reactive, not proactive, and needs to get out in front on issues.

“I wish I knew where it was going,” she said. “I think it’s all up for grabs. … But public education is not going away. Americans won’t let that happen. But people want change.”