Community School seeks place to call home | SierraSun.com

Community School seeks place to call home

by Katherine Morris

When classes resume this fall, one group of local students might find themselves with no place to go.

The Community School, which offers an alternative for middle school and high school students who have been expelled from schools or placed on probation in Placer, Nevada and El Dorado counties, is in grave danger of losing its current home on Palisades Drive off Highway 267.

Since the school’s inception in 1996, it has served more than 100 students, helping many of them continue their education during difficult times and get back on their feet again.

“The problem is that the state simply doesn’t provide enough money for programs like ours,” said Joan Berry, director of Alternative Education for the Placer County Department of Education, which funds and operates the school.

According to Berry, a combination of increasing rents, decreasing county funds and a lack of space to serve the number of students necessary for the program to be financially solvent has forced the school to look for another, more affordable school site.

“We’ve simply outgrown the space that we have and we need to serve more students to generate enough money to keep the program going,” Berry said. “If we can’t find something soon, it may mean that we have to close our doors.”

Closing those doors would mean students would have to commute to the next closest school in Auburn — an unrealistic scenario — or end up back out on the streets.

Not in My Neighborhood

Just last week, it appeared as though the Community School had found a viable solution when the Truckee Donner Public Utility District offered to lease a plot of land on Glen Road to the Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District, who in turn, would provide a portable classroom for the school.

While the Community School is run independently of the TTUSD, the school serves students from the district “who have encountered difficulties in the normal school program,” wrote Superintendent Pat Gemma in a letter to residents living near the proposed school site.

One positive about the site is that it does not lie on any school property. A 1996 state law barred students who were expelled from any school property for a semester.

The TDPUD’s one requirement in regards to the lease was that the school district receive approval for the project from the residents in the surrounding Meadow Lake Park neighborhood.

On April 11, the district sent out a letter detailing the project and also announcing a meeting to be held on April 30 where the public could voice concerns.

According to Britto, about 20 concerned residents were in attendance at that meeting.

“Everyone seemed to agree on the value of the school, but reaction to the project, itself, ranged from one of anger to concern,” Britto said.

At the meeting, residents heard an overview of the school, as well as personal testimonies from three current students.

Among the major concerns voiced by residents included issues of safety, burglary, traffic and the decrease in property values that having such a school in their neighborhood could bring.

Neither side left the meeting feeling very positive about what had transpired.

One student who spoke, who will remain anonymous for legal purposes, said the audience made him feel like a convict.

“For a lot of the meeting, I felt like I was being attacked,” he said. “People were saying that they’d have to start locking their doors because they’d worry about their valuables with us around. It was nice that a few people came up to us at the end and said positive things, though.”

Mike DePew, teacher for the Community School, said he was trying to put himself in the residents’ shoes that night.

“I completely respect and recognize the concerns of these residents, and, from the way that they reacted, it’s very clear that this wasn’t the right location for us,” DePew said. “If people wanted to put something in my backyard that I didn’t like, I’m can’t say I wouldn’t have reacted in a similar way.”

DePew said he has no trust issues with his students, though.

“My own children have grown up around these students, they’ve babysat for me, changed my kids’ diapers,” he said.

He said it was difficult to sit there knowing his students were having to listen to some harsh criticism.

“A few times I looked over at them as if to say, ‘I am so sorry, guys,'” he said.

Take It to the PUD

Feeling as though they’d had little success at the school district meeting, residents decided to take their concerns to the TDPUD board meeting the following evening.

Every seat in the audience was filled with residents clamoring to address the board.

“The school will bring traffic to the area, plus there’s the potential impacts of having 12 to 19 delinquents in the area,” said Russell Rosario, another resident. “These kids have done so much wrong that the state doesn’t want them on its school properties. Some of them have committed damn-near felonies and caused harm to other people.”

“We have no problem with the program itself, it’s just that we don’t believe it should be in our neighborhood,” he said.

Resident Joel Quist said putting the Community School in the neighborhood was an imposition of the neighbors’ rights as citizens.

“These are not good kids and the school doesn’t belong in any neighborhood,” Quist said, also expressing concern that students would be using the neighborhood park for P.E. “These kids lost the right to go to public school, and they’ve also lost the right to recreate,” he said.

TDPUD President Nelson Van Gundy said the turnout at the meeting was a real indicator of concern over the project.

“I’d like to know if there’s anyone here in support of the project?” Van Gundy asked.

Not one hand was raised.

The item was agendized for the PUD meeting on May 15, however, the next morning, after learning of the commotion the night before, John Britto, director of facilities and construction for the school district, called the PUD to withdraw TTUSD’s request to lease the property.

“Overall, it’s an extremely difficult situation and I understand their concerns,” Britto said.

“We felt that there were solutions to the neighborhood’s concerns, particularly since the students are so heavily supervised at all times. The program director meets the kids when they arrive at the school and walks them out and waits with them when they are picked up. We really weren’t concerned with them wandering around unsupervised.”

Britto said the school has a couple other options, however, he did not wish to comment on those options at this point in time.

“The thing that we really failed to get across was the fact that if this program doesn’t exist, these kids are not going to be in school at all, but rather, out on the streets alone,” Britto said. ‘They might not necessarily be in these folks neighborhoods, but who knows. We see this as an extremely valuable program. If people only really knew what it’s all about.”

A Fresh Start

“Since I’ve been at the school, I’ve been clean and sober for a year and a half, I’m more focused on my school work and my attendance is like 95 percent,” said one Community School student. “I used to ditch class all the time, but not anymore. It’s been nice to get some counseling here, too. It really seems like everyone here cares about each other.”

Judge Andy Holmer in the Nevada County Superior Court, who sees many of the Community School students as they pass through his courtroom, said it’s vital that the community continues this program.

“It really comes down to a simple question: Do we want these kids on the street or at home by themselves, or do we want them in school, continuing their education?” he asked. “I’ve seen just how much of a difference the school can make for some of the students.”

While DePew said it would be a lie to say that some students don’t have felonies or haven’t committed crimes, most kids were those who just found themselves without the necessary decision making skills.

“A lot of them were forced to grow up too fast, some of them too slow,” he said. “You see a lot of the same problems with kids at regular schools, it’s just that these are the kids who got caught.”

Joan Berry, of Placer County Department of Education, agrees.

“These are good kids, who just made bad decisions,” Berry said. “They still have every right to an education, though. We’re not going to give up on finding a school site for them — not just yet.”

While DePew says there are no money-back guarantees that the program will work for every student, he’s seen the tremendous difference it can make when it does have an impact.

“My real paycheck is seeing these kids years after they’ve left the school, seeing that they’ve turned out okay, have jobs and families — all thanks to my nagging,” he says with a smile.

“The best thing that has come out of this whole thing, particularly out of the meeting I attended, was the fact that I came away from it saying, ‘God, I love these kids’. It really energized me to work harder for them.”