It’s early for any ninth grader ” about 6:30 a.m. ” but one student is already up and almost ready for his daily commute. A tall 14-year-old with a thick head of hair, Seth Lowenstern stuffs books and laptop computer into a black suitcase big enough for wheels as he prepares for his hour-long journey to school.
Lowenstern lives in Tahoe Donner but doesn’t attend Truckee High School or the local charter school.
Instead, Seth is from one of about nine Truckee-Tahoe families who send children to Sage Ridge School in southwest Reno. Another two dozen area students attend other private schools down the hill where uniforms and laptop computers are mandatory.
Although Seth lets the 55-minute commute go by with ambivalence, “[I] pretty much sleep actually,” his father, Mark Lowenstern, said he feels sending Seth to Sage Ridge is the best thing he can do for his son.
“I’m pretty involved in business, so that we can send my kids to private school,” said Lowenstern, who owns Truckee’s only car wash.
The Truckee businessman said he feels like his immigrant grandparents must have, working hard to provide a better life for his kids. Lowenstern also has a daughter enrolled in a private elementary school in Reno.
Lowenstern concedes the nearly 100-mile round trip to school was hard on his family. He and his wife, Joan, have just closed escrow on a house in Reno, so the kids can be closer to school while he begins commuting to Truckee.
Lowenstern is not alone.
Throughout the sprawling Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, dozens of parents have chosen to pluck their kids out of the public schools and enroll them in distant private schools.
Why? Parents have different explanations. Reasons include smaller class size, religious beliefs, a more structured learning environment and strict discipline policies. Some say public schools cannot provide the high-grade equipment that a private school can.
Others contend that smaller schools can offer a student more opportunity to play sports. While they describe that as a secondary motivation, most parents cite quality of education as their principal concern.
About two dozen students who live in the Tahoe-Truckee area are attending Bishop Manogue High School this semester, a private school with an enrollment of 685 students, about 200 more than North Tahoe High School. Manogue President Jim Toner said 99 percent of Manogue’s students go to college after high school, 76 percent accept scholarships to college.
“There are a disproportionate number [of students] that earn academic scholarships,” Toner said.
Last year alone those scholarships added up to $1.7 million, according to Toner. Some parents might consider that a healthy return on the prep school’s annual tuition of $7,000.
Toner attributes the school’s success to a holistic approach to instruction that includes “mind, body and spirit.” He said the school’s unwavering discipline starts with the students’ mandatory uniforms.
The four-year high school’s Catholic curriculum draws approximately 55 percent of its student body from Catholic families.
“The Catholic school identity drives the school,” Toner said.
The other notable Washoe Valley school that draws Tahoe-Truckee students is Sage Ridge School. According to admission director Carol Murphy, some students commute from as far away as Kings Beach, while other families have bought second homes in Reno or relocated from Tahoe to southwest Reno.
The small school offers classes from fifth through 12 grades, with a ninth-grade class of just 32 students. The school’s total enrollment is 230, Murphy said, with about one teacher for every seven students.
“The kids are challenged in a holistic and nurturing way,” Murphy said, citing the school’s five “value pillars” of integrity, courage, respect, scholarship and community.
Although Murphy said the school is less expensive than some non-denominational private schools, parents may still be challenged to pay the tuition, which ranges from $11,000 to $15,800 on a sliding scale.
As for the students leaving the Tahoe Truckee district, many parents say they enjoy the change and the new discipline a private school offers their children, whether the school is secular or religious.
For Jim Sloan’s 14 year-old daughter, Emma, who sought tutoring at Alder Creek Middle School even while receiving straight A’s, Bishop Manogue was exactly the kind of school she wanted.
“[My] daughter fell in love with the school,” said Sloan, a Glenshire resident. “[Emma] is one of those kids that has expectations on what she wanted in a school.”
As for Sloan, he thinks his daughter will find the Catholic high school more challenging, and believes she will get the extra help she wanted to excel. While religion was not the reason the family took their daughter out of her home district, they still see Manogue’s religion classes as a bonus.
Yet, Sloan would not fault the local high school, either.
“It wasn’t because we didn’t like Truckee High,” Sloan said. “We’ve seen a lot of great students come out of the high school.”
Emma said the classes Manogue offers are more challenging, the swim team is better and she uses the 40-minute commute with her dad to finish homework. Jim Sloan commutes to his job in Reno six days a week.
Another Glenshire resident, Craig Dostie, cited two reasons why he has not enrolled his 14-year-old daughter, Braighlee, in the local school district.
“We are appalled at the standards of public schools in the [United States], and California especially,” Dostie said.
The second reason?
“The absence of God in the schools ” he was thrown out in 1963,” Dostie said about U.S. Supreme Court rulings that stopped classroom prayer in public schools.
A writer for Backcountry Magazine, Dostie said he believes the absence of faith in schools is responsible for the increase in teen pregnancy, drug use and violence.
Many parents worry about what college will accept their child after graduation.
“Bishop Manogue will look better on her application than Truckee High,” Glenshire resident Anna Nickerson said about her daughter, Alicia.
Nickerson works in Reno, so the commute to school for her 15-year-old daughter is more like a ride share than a hardship. The mother of three said when she asked Alicia about attending private school in sixth grade, her daughter cried. But by eighth grade, Alicia made up her mind to be a doctor.
“She was online looking at Bishop Manogue,” Nickerson said. “She was writing to the dean at Dartmouth College.”
Lowenstern, meanwhile, echoes the same concerns about Tahoe-Truckee’s curriculum.
“I have a very bright and gifted son,” he said. “Currently, Truckee schools don’t have an [advanced placement] provision and my concern was my son was bored. He needed to learn good study habits. When he gets to college, I want him to be able to apply himself.”
Lowenstern said Seth went through the Gifted And Talented Education or GATE program, but those classes are not offered to the older grade levels. Seth took the college SAT tests and scored in the 99th percentile.
“He was reading books while in class ” but still getting on the honor roll,” Lowenstern said.
Many Truckee-Tahoe parents have jobs that keep them busy in the Tahoe Basin. By enrolling their children in private schools, they commit to a tighter schedule and longer commute. As a consequence, some parents have created vanpools, taking turns driving the 40 miles to Manogue. Others pay for more than just tuition and books.
“It’s a fun group to work with,” said Tal Fletcher of Truckee Tahoe Transportation. “They’re usually doing homework on the way down ” it’s like a little mobile study hall.”
Fletcher currently drives the children of five Truckee-Tahoe families to Bishop Manogue every day, picking them up three times a week. Though he wouldn’t discuss his financial agreement with the parents, Fletcher said the distance from Truckee is approximately the same as a trip to the Reno-Tahoe airport, for which he charges $100 one-way. He encourages the parents to share rides to bring down the price.
Lowenstern and other parents have solved the commuting problem by buying property in Reno. General contractor Keith Batory, a West Shore resident, bought a home in Reno when his oldest son, now 17 years old, was entering high school. Now Batory lives and works at Lake Tahoe, but his family lives and attends school in Reno. The family reunites every weekend. Batory still feels this is the right thing to do.
“I wanted the bar to be raised. I wanted them to be pushed,” he said of his sons enrolled at Bishop Manogue. “I feel North Tahoe, because of the numbers, doesn’t get the funding it needs. And because of the geography, the turnover at the top is more frequent than we would like.”
Along with the difficult geography, Batory said Tahoe teachers do not get paid enough to live in the area. Batory said the mountain schools feel more nurturing and close knit, and that the district is moving in the right direction by investing in North Tahoe’s new middle and high school.
But perhaps for Batory the improvements came too late.
Parents like Sloan and Nickerson don’t mind the drive ” and neither do their kids. Others like Lowenstern may find living in the high desert of Reno and commuting to Truckee for work is achievable.
As the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District continues to modify learning and compensate for an ever-growing and diverse student body, only time will tell if parents recognize the excellence the district is striving for.
Holly McGowan, a Truckee resident who sends her child to Bishop Manogue for religious reasons, sums up the student exodus of late.
“It doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for us,” McGowan said.
The Tahoe Truckee Unified School District’s student population is projected to decline to about 3,758 students for the 2007-08 school year; that’s down almost 90 students from last year.
The district is also in its third year of program improvement, a label assigned to school districts and individual schools that do not meet certain testing benchmarks set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Last year three schools within the district were in program improvement: King’s Beach Elementary, North Tahoe Middle School and Truckee Elementary School.
Parents worry about the seeming underperformance, but district Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Earl Wammack contends that each district has its own challenges and sometimes test scores do not equal failure or success.
“Just because a district is in Program Improvement doesn’t mean they are not doing their job,” Wammack said. “They are just more challenged with what they need to do.”
The challenges as Wammack sees them are bringing non-English-speaking students up to state testing standards. The other sub-group, as the district calls racial and economic minorities, are families with parents who earn low wages. Those parents can’t always help their children with homework. According to a report by the Community Collaborative of Tahoe Truckee, “the two fastest-growing populations in the Tahoe Truckee area between 1990 and 2000 were individuals with an education level less than ninth grade and those with a graduate degree.”
The district’s board of trustees believe Tahoe-Truckee schools serve the community well considering the wide diversity of the district’s population.
“I think some parents may be fearful of the fact that TTUSD is a program improvement district and may make choices without really understanding what P.I. means to their children,” said Trustee Bev Ducey. “If you dig deeper you will see that native English speakers are doing well and that our English learners are behind in meeting the standards. However, their performance has been improving.”
Ducey said the district’s native English-speakers are scoring so high on tests that the district’s scores as a whole are above California’s average, adding that Placer County has the second-highest test scores in the state.
“Kings Beach Elementary, with the highest concentration of English learners, made its student achievement growth targets in 2007,” Ducey said. “If they continue to reach their targets this year, they will be out of program improvement status. Even though we have many challenges still facing us, this is a significant accomplishment and speaks to the commitment of our TTUSD staff in improving student achievement.”
Board President Kristy Olk said trustees want to turn the label of program improvement into an opportunity to increase collaboration among educators in the 11-school district.
In fact, the trustees, elected from the district’s five distinct geographic areas, have deliberated over the summer how to align each school’s goals with district goals. Making sure everyone knows district goals is one thing, but what about funding?
Does program improvement mean less funding to the district?
According to the district’s Wammack, maybe ” but he is not too worried about it.
As schools go into program improvement they receive more money ” not less ” from the federal government to assist the school. Some districts are affected by cuts in state funding as a result of program improvement, but the Tahoe-Truckee district is not, thanks to supplemental funding from Measure A, a parcel tax approved by district voters.
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