Struggling to take root
Chico’s first charter high school remains unaccredited and faces charter revocation
CJ Nava was surprised this past spring when she learned that her son, William, hadn’t been taking courses recognized as college prep. He had spent a rocky freshman year at the charter high school Nava helped found, Chico Green School, and Nava was considering whether to transfer him.
During conversations with school officials, Nava learned that William’s coursework had earned what she calls “basic high school credit.” But that credit wouldn’t help get him into a four-year college out of high school.
William plans to attend Chico State as a college freshman and major in anthropology. So he’s now in the process of enrolling at Butte College to retake classes he took at the Green School.
Earlier that day, Nava had been even more surprised to learn that Chico Green School had failed in its initial bid to become a candidate for accreditation. “I knew they had a lot to work on,” she said, “but I never got it that there were challenges to accreditation. I had heard everything was great. As a parent, I was misled.”
Nava wasn’t just a parent at Chico Green School; she sat on the board for two and a half years until her term ended in December. Like many of the people who helped open the independent charter high school, she had been excited by the vision of a Waldorf-influenced, sustainability-themed school.
But in its first tumultuous year of operation, the little school with a big vision lost almost all of its teaching staff, many board members and some students. Now, it’s in danger of losing something even more critical—its charter.
John Bohannon, Chico Unified School District’s alternative-programs director, recommended charter revocation after recently learning that on June 30 the school had faltered in its effort to take the first step toward accreditation. He also said the school has continued to violate the state’s open-meeting laws, although he provided little detail beyond allegations that were made last fall.
The Green School has pledged to fight CUSD’s revocation effort and continue to work toward offering fully accredited, college-prep coursework. But some of the people who initially supported the school, like Nava, fear that a chance to build a viable high school option is being squandered by a board of directors that discourages debate, dissent and critique.
The Green School board presently includes founding members David Orneallas, Martin Schwabe and Kent Sandoe, and parent Josh Gertsch.
A decision on Bohannon’s revocation recommendation is expected at the Aug. 17 Board of Trustees meeting; the Green School has until Aug. 10 to submit a written response.
Its initial response reflects its deep mistrust of its chartering agency and the strain in the relationship between the school and CUSD. A public hearing on Monday (Aug. 1) suggested that charter revocation may be messy and demanding for both sides; it would be the first revocation since CUSD began chartering schools.
Jennifer McQuarrie, a charter-law attorney whom the school has retained, said the district had failed to provide “due process” in the revocation proceedings. The “unsubstantiated notices” CUSD sent the Green School last fall were designed to “harass” the school, she said, and to discourage students from enrolling.
On two occasions last fall, CUSD sent the school a so-called “Notice to Remedy or Face Revocation.”
At the hearing, the Green School introduced its new staff. The school’s new director, Shana Murray, previously managed outreach for a private Waldorf school in Mendocino. Keith Gelber, who also comes from the Mendocino school, will integrate a folk-arts program into the curriculum. The school presented a half-dozen enthusiastic instructors, most of whom have been hired during the past six months. But Terra Malmstrom had just arrived in Chico from Colorado to take a science teaching position at the school.
A small group of families also assembled in the CUSD conference room in support of the school.
Chico Green’s problems with its chartering agency date back at least a year. The district became alarmed when the school accepted 11th graders upon opening—in violation of its own charter, according to CUSD. At the hearing, Bohannon said a successful first step toward accreditation would have been viewed as a remedy to the earlier violation.
School leaders blame their initial failure in the accreditation process in part on Bohannon. The school says the process was flawed and the decision by the Western Association of Schools & Colleges (WASC) will be appealed. “We believe Mr. Bohannon has directly sabotaged our WASC accreditation process,” Green School board Chairman Orneallas declared.
Green School notes it can continue to work with WASC and perhaps become an accreditation candidate by spring. Murray says its students have been in no way harmed; many young people from unaccredited schools attend college through alternative pathways.
What happened during the evaluation process is unclear; WASC declined to comment. However, Orneallas describes the WASC visit this way: It proceeded smoothly until Bohannon showed up on campus and met privately with the visiting team for about an hour. After that, the team left the site rather hurriedly, seemingly uninterested in visiting classes.
Bohannon said he went to the school at WASC’s request and held a closed-door meeting with the visitors for about 30 minutes; such meetings with chartering agencies are commonplace.
Laura Rivero-Fisher, who served on the board the first half of this year, was impressed with the WASC team’s interest in the school. “They were asking really important questions,” Rivero-Fisher said.
In its report, WASC noted that enrollment declined during the school’s first year from 57 to 46 students; there was almost one faculty member for every seven students. It said the school is in the second year of a three-year, $450,000 implementation grant and has a “clear vision” built on Waldorf educational philosophy.
The Green School says a conflict of interest may have occurred because an official in the accreditation commission, Valene Staley, is the mother of CUSD Superintendent Kelly Staley. Orneallas said Kelly Staley has “always been unfriendly to us and to charter schools in general.”
“We’re in a David-and-Goliath situation,” Orneallas said in a recent interview. “We’re a tiny little school in a big district that’s not that friendly to charter schools.”
For her part, Nava said that in her work with the school, she often came face-to-face with a “true victim mentality.” She attended meetings with CUSD personnel and said she never felt the district was “out to get” the school.
“It’s their job to question things, to make sure the curriculum is aligned with state and federal standards,” Nava said. “If you’re intimidated by that, you have to ask yourselves, are you the right leaders to open the campus?”
Nava, recalling that she helped win the school’s original charter authorization, says the school didn’t promise the community alternative pathways. Chico Green School, she said, was billed as a college-preparatory high school where students would meet or exceed college entrance requirements.
Rivero-Fisher and Nava said they have both pleaded for an expanded board representing diverse viewpoints. Rivero-Fisher was threatened with ouster after she questioned the school’s hiring practices and, on several occasions, compliance with the Brown Act that governs public access to meetings of the board.
Orneallas said he’s confident in the leadership that Murray, Gelber and Malmstrom will bring the school. Malmstrom, who has master’s degrees in both education and neuroscience, will serve as faculty chair. Murray and Gelber don’t have education credentials, but Orneallas said they’re “minor illuminaries in the Waldorf world.”