Education choices abound in Truckee-Tahoe region
At a recent school board meeting, a letter was read from the parents of a 1-year-old child – they wanted to know how to reserve a spot in Kings Beach Elementary School’s Dual Language Immersion Program.
Chris Crockett, admission director for Squaw Valley Academy, says her office is deluged with phone calls of parents interested in the private school – primarily parents of students ready to move up to either a public middle or high school.
Parents at Tahoe Lake School are weighing an option of enrolling their child in a new multi-age program, while Truckee Elementary School parents are making decisions about
whether to put their child in a looping option.
This is the year of educational choices.
“There’s tons of choices locally,” said Jayna Gaskell, head of school for the Prosser Creek Charter School.
In the Truckee-Tahoe region, a few parents in the past have chosen a private school, but most defaulted to the traditional public school. However, the advent of charter schools in California in 1992 opened the starting gates in a competitive race for students.
“We’re in a highly competitive era. All in all, it may result in better learning for students,” said Jo Wilson, principal of Tahoe Lake and Rideout elementary schools.
The Prosser Creek Charter School opened in 1998, suddenly and publicly announcing that it will organize any type of classroom situation parents desire. In just two years, five different campuses have shot up with an enrollment of 183 students in four actual “schools.” Total enrollment for the charter school – including homeschool and independent study students – is 396, said Corinne Colman, project coordinator.
Small classes are a primary draw for parents investigating the charter school option, said Colman.
Other parents are just seeking alternatives to public education, according to Melissa Mohler, who directs the private enrichment program offered to the charter’s Learning Tree Cooperative on the West Shore.
“The parents are coming to the alternative for what it represents,” she said.
The charter school is not the only alternative for Tahoe-Truckee parents; private schools are becoming more and more popular too. The private Catholic school in Tahoe City, Thomas Aquinas, opened six years ago with two students; now it has 22 students.
Enrollment has increased as well at the Truckee Tahoe Christian School, while Squaw Valley Academy has lowered its day student tuition to attract more local students.
“Most of the people are looking for alternatives to public school,” said Crockett.
The increased competition is forcing the public schools to tout their advantages, listen to parents’ ideas and offer their own alternatives.
“We believe we provide an outstanding educational opportunity for students in this district and we don’t want to lose them. We are committed to compete,” said Tahoe Truckee Unified School District Superintendent Pat Gemma.
At the high school level, block scheduling is being advocated with hopes to make college-level courses available someday.
Small class sizes at the elementary level, as well as many different special programs, are offering parents a variety of choices in the traditional public schools. Also much of the private, fee-based enrichment classes at the charter schools are included the regular school week in the public schools.
Tahoe Lake School first-grade teachers Vicky Brown and Terrina Woodard say that limiting class sizes to 20 students or less in the elementary schools has made classroom instruction more individualized.
“I work longer and harder because of the individualizing we can too,” said Brown.
She added that changing to smaller class sizes three years ago didn’t result in less work for teachers, but created an academic situation where the class learns quicker and teachers are able to offer more instruction and more individualization.
Yet on the Tahoe side of the school district, public school teachers are being impacted by the increased competition along with a declining population seeking more affordable housing in Truckee and other communities.
Wilson said she expects to decrease by two teachers at Tahoe Lake and two at Rideout next year. This made her look at alternatives for her schools.
“I realized I was going to have extra classrooms at Rideout,” she said.
As an educator, she has always been interested in multi-age learning and so decided to offer a “school within a school” with a multi-age class.
“It seems like the current trend is to give more choices to parents,” Wilson said. “When you have competition, you get innovation.”
Alternatives within the public schools have proven successful. Donner Trail School has a waiting list of 32 students to enter its multi-age program, while the Dual Language Immersion option at Kings Beach Elementary School also has waiting lists and parents wishing to sign up for future years. The looping program at Truckee Elementary School has been in place for many years.
Kings Beach Principal Derek Cooper said the Dual Language Immersion program was the result of parents working with teachers to create it.
“It’s what changes things in today’s world,” he said. “There’s always been those capabilities to change, now parents are getting involved.”
One of the controversies, however, for teachers within the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District whether the alternative programs in the district will mean a loss of enrollment in their classes, Gemma said. When a new program is offered in the district, teachers within the district are given a choice to teach in the program before it is advertised outside of the district, he said.
Some programs require unique teachers, like the Dual Language Immersion Program which needs teachers fluent in English and Spanish, Cooper said.
But Gemma says traditional schools cannot stay the same.
“As the world changes so quickly now, for schools to remain exactly the same won’t work and hopefully change will be for the better,” Gemma said.
Parent Bonnie Dodge believes parental choice is important, but she cautions that parents really need to evaluate their individual children.
Of her three children, one is attending third grade at The Learning Tree Cooperative of the Prosser Creek Charter School, while the other two are at Tahoe Lake and Rideout. This is also after investigating private schools in the past year.
“Each kid is different and you can’t make a blanket decision,” Dodge said. “They have different needs and can succeed in different environments.”
Her son Zachary is one of the youngest for his age group, more artistic and needs more teacher direction. The charter’s small class size and variety has suited him.
“He’s the kind of kid who slips through the cracks,” she said.
Her two daughters, however, are independent learners and need the social interaction of a traditional school. She also said when choosing between the charter and the traditional school for her kindergartner, she relied on her older children’s great experiences at Tahoe Lake.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” she said.
Parents are talking about the pros and cons of larger and smaller peer groups at each school, the reputation of the teachers at the schools, the enrichment versus the core classes and, at the middle and high school levels, the supervision and control at the school.
Some are switching between schools, having their child attend school at one place and switch the next year to another.
Then there are those from larger communities who say Tahoe-Truckee’s choices are much smaller than other places.
“I wish there were more options,” said Lynda Walsh, who is sending her daughter Sierra to The Learning Tree’s kindergarten next year.
She considered homeschooling before choosing The Learning Tree for its class size, teacher ratio and “nurturing environment.”
Abby Hutchison contributed information to this story.
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