Charter School Interrupted

by Leslie Layton

Sydney Cambra, who spent her sophomore year at the fledgling Chico Green School, scrambled this week to enroll at another school a week after classes had begun in the Chico Unified School District.

Cambra, who chose Chico High School, was forced to make the switch after CUSD revoked the Green School’s charter and reported it in violation of state law. Representatives at the school subsequently announced it was closing its doors to fall-term students.

Chico Unified School District says the charter high school has violated the Brown Act, California’s open-meetings law. The decision to pull the year-old school’s charter was based also on its failure to become a candidate for accreditation after a spring visit by an accreditation committee, but it was the Brown Act allegations that dealt the hardest blow. Violations of state law trigger a cut-off in funding to charter schools that are run independently but financed by public monies.

It was the first time the school district had revoked a charter since it began chartering independent schools, and the Aug. 17 split Board of Education vote came in a meeting that concluded with a few angry parent outbursts. On Aug. 19, the school district’s attorney, John Yeh, found himself in Butte County Superior Court facing off with a Green School attorney.

But the Green School failed to convince Judge Sandra McLean that she could stop CUSD from reporting alleged Brown Act violations to the state Department of Education. Soon after, Green School Board of Directors Chairman David Orneallas said the school was encouraging its more than 40 students to seek classroom instruction elsewhere for this semester.

But the Green School has yet to fire a teacher or give up the lease on its building. Orneallas said it would file an appeal of CUSD’s decision to Butte County Office of Education as early as Aug. 26. He said the school wants to keep teachers — many of whom have been recently hired from out of the area — on “in some capacity,” and will struggle to make payments on a $100,000 revolving loan from the state of California.

“We do plan to rise like a phoenix from the ashes,” said Orneallas. “We’ve come a long way.”

Chico Green School opened last fall as a Waldorf-influenced school that would make sustainability a central curricular theme. But troubles soon emerged: teachers complained publicly that there were administrative problems, and CUSD sent the school two formal notices that threatened charter revocation if certain conditions weren’t met.

Green School teachers and parents soon became concerned about administrative problems, and some say the matter of student discipline emerged as a thorny issue. Chico Green School had advertised itself as a college-prep high school, but many of the students it attracted were teens who had struggled or failed at other schools.

“I don’t think the administration had anticipated getting the students they did get,” said Cynthia Bryant, the mother of Sydney Cambra. “I agree that discipline was somewhat lacking… they didn’t have a system to deal with much,” she said. But she says the school was changing direction. “They were set to go into this school year with a whole [discipline] policy,” Bryant said.

Bryant recently joined the school’s board of directors and has been speaking publicly, arguing that the school needs another chance. Bryant says her daughter had “slipped through the cracks” at CUSD schools and liked going to Chico Green School.

After enrolling her daughter there, Bryant said she became troubled by the school’s lack of communication with parents. In June, she and another parent called a meeting, and parents voiced their concerns about matters like discipline, homework and communication to administrators. That helped propel the school to change, she said. “I’m not somebody who wants to throw away my child’s education,” Bryant said.

The Board of Education voted 3-2 in favor of revocation, with President Kathy Kaiser and trustees Eileen Robinson and Andrea Lerner Thompson voting in favor. The revocation was opposed by Vice President Jann Reed and Trustee Liz Griffin. But Griffin earlier in the meeting said something had gone “very much awry with this school.” “You had a planning year to put your house in order,” Griffin said. “That time was not well-utilized. There were too many internal struggles going on.

“It’s very, very difficult to have trust and confidence” at this point, she added.

Before the meeting had concluded, Green School founder Kent Sandoe stormed out after shouting at the board, “Shame on you.”

Charter schools, by law, are given more freedom than other public schools, but are also supposed to be held to a high standard for accountability.

This story was published in the Aug. 25, 2011 Chico News & Review.

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