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School offers alternative education

SHERRY MAYS, Sierra Sun

As Prosser Creek Charter School students settle into their new curriculum, parents and educators debate over the effects the school is having on the district – mainly in funding and declining enrollment.

So what is the Prosser Creek Charter School all about?

“The bottom line is to create innovative models for educating,” said Marion Shill, Prosser Creek’s executive director. “This way the state can find new ideas on how to educate without spending extra money.”

Up until this year, the number of charter schools was limited to 100 in the state of California. When legislation passed to not limit the number of charters, more and more schools began popping up.

In a recent State of the Union Address given by President Bill Clinton, he said he wanted to see the number of charter schools reach the 3,000 point by the end of this year.

“Interest is growing in response to charter schools,” Shill said. “Not only is California seeing an increase, it’s a national increase, too.”

She said it’s all about making choices about education. Because curriculums can be tailored to meet the needs of individual students or groups of students, the education process is more flexible.

Linda Adams, a Truckee parent with three students enrolled in Prosser Creek, said she didn’t like the curriculum the state had to offer to her children in grades kindergarten, second and fourth.

“I’ve wanted to homeschool for years but never had a reason to take my children out of public school,” she said. “I liked the idea of the charter school. Homeschool gives me the chance to meet my children’s needs.

Prosser Creek’s model focuses on homeschooling with site-based classes, which means students can attend classes at the school if there is a specific class that is needed in addition to the home classes.

“Some parents just aren’t comfortable teaching all subjects at home,” she said. “The Prosser site offers a place for students to meet in a classroom setting.”

Shill said there are different reasons why parents chose to teach their children at home. Different learning styles is one reason why Prosser Creek works successfully.

Adams agreed.

“My children have their own rate of learning,” she said. “They can concentrate at home or during field trips. There also isn’t a lot of wasted time. I can integrate so many lessons into the same time span it would take to teach one class.”

Adams spends two to four hours each day with her children, and often leads outdoor eco-lessons for other students in the school. The children also spend two days at the school, which totals about eight hours of classroom instruction. All three students are taking art classes and Spanish language lessons.

“I have a degree in biology which allows me to integrate science and culture,” she said. “We go on field trips and study streams and wildlife. That can be an eight-hour lesson if we want it to be.”

She said she wakes up every morning and plans out the day.

“I know where my children are academically,” she said. “The biggest advantage is working together as a family.”

Another difference between public and charter schools is that public schools are rule-based, where charter schools are performance-based.

“Public school districts need to follow ed codes that dictate how children can be taught,” she said. “Charter schools assess performance of the students. They (students) must test equal to or above the state average test scores in order to remain in business.”

There are five-year assessments of charter school performance. If students do not measure up, the school closes.

“Our charter document uses eight pages to spell out 15 items on the expected outcomes of the school and how the students’ performance will be measured,” she said. “It’s up to the students, educators and parents to find the best learning environment for the students.”

And how the students achieve their goals at the charter school is also different.

“Parents don’t always understand that attendance at public schools carries a specific number of minutes and days in the school year,” Shill said. “Our students have to reach their goals in a specific amount of time. We follow a calendar. The bells don’t ring here.”

Monthly student assessments and learning records are rigidly followed.

This is how the school records its actual daily attendance, unlike the public schools, where a student must be in a class for a certain amount of time in order for the district to receive state monies for that student’s attendance.

“I know there has been a lot of questions about the ADA funding that the district is losing by having students move from the district’s schools to Prosser Creek,” she said. “That is unfortunate, but we are working on an agreement with the district. The district will receive funds for any services they provide the charter school students.”

When the district first agreed to allow the charter school into the district, the amount of ADA funding the district was to receive 15 percent of the charter school’s attendance. Legislation since July changed that amount to 1 percent.

“The reasoning behind giving a percentage to the district is a trade off,” she said. “The ADA funding funnels through the district. The 1 percent goes toward accounting costs.”

The initial agreement of the 15 percent would have covered the district’s involvement in managing the special education funding that would have been funneled to the charter school, but now, special ed funding for the charter school is staying with the district, Shill said.

At last week’s regular school board meeting, parents and teachers discussed the relationship between the district and charter schools, after the question of whether charter school students could participate in social activities and athletics at the district’s schools.

Pat Gemma said the district and Prosser Creek are working on an agreement for funding and co-curricular activities for the November meeting.

“There needs to be a funding mechanism to provide for co-curricular and other opportunities,” he said. “We need to be careful that more of the district revenue doesn’t filter to the charter school and take away from the kids that remain in the district schools. We will have a memorandum of understanding (agreement) by the November meeting.”

Adams said her oldest son is in the sixth grade at Sierra Mountain Middle School, where he has chosen to stay. She said her son needed the discipline and responsibilities taught at the school at this point in his education.

“All my children can decide where they want to be educated,” she said. “My youngest children love homeschooling. It’s not for everyone. If a student doesn’t want to be homeschooled, then they will fight it all the time. There has to be agreement.”

Whether it is curriculum or smaller classes, educators, administrators and parents agree that the public school district is underfunded by the state.

“I don’t know how the schools can teach students with $3,800 (ADA per student),” Shill said. “The parents are going to have to demand more money from the state in order to provide adequate education. New Jersey’s ADA is at $13,000 per student, and we are $1,000 under the national average. The state needs to set priorities.”

Adams agreed and said she decided to take responsibility for her children’s education.

“I have to take care or my own,” she said. “I don’t expect someone to fix all of the problems now. But I’m not going to wait.

“I have to say that being a mom and a teacher and watching my children learn is probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

SIDEBAR

Marion Shill, executive director of the Prosser Creek Charter School, said the school’s enrollment is at about 250 and increasing daily with three campuses in Truckee, Sebastopol and Nevada City.

“The interest in alternative education is there,” she said. “We have such innovative and intelligent educators in our district. It would be great to see the district let them loose to educate the way they wish to teach.”

Shill pointed to Placer High School, a charter school with 1,700 students.

“Placer High is successfully teaching under its charter,” she said. “It is offering exciting opportunities to its students in a more traditional setting.”

Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District could potentially become a charter district, Shill said. If 51 percent of the teachers would agree to the transition, the process of providing individualized curriculum and alternative education could begin.

The change would move the district from rule-based education to performance-based education, where educators would be judged on the performance of their students, not by their years of experience. If students did not perform at or above state standards the schools would close.

“That doesn’t happen now,” Shill said. “Schools are based on rules, not performance. Charter schools have raised the awareness of students as consumers. As they demand alternatives, the interest in charter schools and homeschooling will continue to increase.”

Truckee mother and educator Linda Adams agreed.

“We cannot let rules take priority over our children’s education,” the mother of three students in Prosser Creek Charter School said. “Education is all about the students, and whether or not they are getting the education they need.”

Sierra Sun E-mail: sun@tahoe.com

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