By Theresa Harrington
If the Contra Costa County Board of Education gives the green light on Wednesday, a new charter school could open in the Mt. Diablo school district, offering high school students the chance to work at their own pace using online educational programs, while on campus or at home.
“If denied, we will of course appeal, but we hope to work with the Contra Costa County Board of Education on this charter, if possible,” said Executive Director Mark Kushner in a voicemail message this afternoon. “Also, Daniel Borsuk, the board president, visited today. I think he was impressed, although, of course, he isn’t ready to indicate which way he’s going to vote until he hears all the information.”
Borsuk didn’t respond to an e-mail interview request. However, trustees Daniel Gomes and Pam Mirabella said they were inclined to agree with staff’s recommendation to deny the K12 Flex Academy’s appeal of a unanimous denial by the Mt. Diablo school board in February.
Both trustees were skeptical of the school’s budget, which relies on money from the state for each student, as well as a possible loan from the California Department of Education.
“I was very concerned about special education and also explusions, but those are minor compared to looking at the unrealistic financial plan,” Mirabella told me early this evening. “Deferring invoices and depending on the state’s revolving loan program that is almost depleted this year — those are indications to me that it is really premature to sanction this charter.”
Gomes admitted he relied more on staff to determine whether the education program was sound.
“I don’t know how to judge those things exactly,” he said.
Mirabella said she plans to visit the school Tuesday to see first-hand how students learn through online courses and how teachers and academic “coaches” fit into the picture.
“I think by visiting the program, it will give me an idea how the online lessons address the needs of the diverse population we have,” she said. “Not all kids can work independently on a computer.”
Mirabella said she is sensitive to the desire of some Mt. Diablo parents for more alternatives.
“They definitely want more choices and they want some more curriculum options for their children,” she said. “One reason I’m going is because maybe the K12 online program itself might supplement the district’s programs, which have really been slashed.”
County trustees heard from several speakers in favor of allowing the charter at their Oct. 6 meeting. Here’s an excerpt of the public comments from the board minutes, starting with Kushner’s presentation:
“As a way of introduction, Mr. Kushner mentioned that he serves as a state charter commissioner and teaches at Stanford University on the topic of charter schools. He then discussed two of the five criteria: that the charter school has a sound educational program and that the team is likely to implement the program. He explained that the program is research based, it is a small and personalized learning model, it provides self-paced instruction, the charter school’s graduation requirements meet the California “a-g” requirements, the curriculum is broad (130 courses), K12 Flex Academy is accredited by a number of trans-regional accrediting organizations, it is not an experimental curriculum; but rather, it is a worldwide curriculum currently used by 70,000 full-time students and 50,000 part-time students in all 50 states and in 50 countries. He further explained that the program combines the best of traditional education (e.g., a small school, personalized relationships, sports, counseling, and activities) with the best online instruction; the traditional part provides the support, and the online part provides the instructional power along with the teachers, and he informed the Board that this type of program is generally called a full-time hybrid. He stated that Harvard University and Stanford University predict that 50% of student learning will be through online instruction in 10-20 years. With regard to the criterion that his team is likely to implement the program, Mr. Kushner pointed out that the board members, partners, advisers, and school team have experience in education, law, finance, facilities, charter schools, marketing, enrollment, leadership, assessment, and fundraising and have more than enough expertise among them to implement the charter school. He then addressed the objections from MDUSD for denying the charter, which he claimed were without merit, and he offered to address these objections if the Board so wished to discuss them beyond the 34-page detailed response that he had already provided. He asked that the Board approve the appeal because it meets the criteria for approval, because it would be a wonderful option for parents in MDUSD and in the county, it is an innovative research-and-development model for children who do not always benefit from attending large high schools. He noted that the Santa Clara County Board of Education unanimously approved three K12 Flex Academies in their county, that the State Board of Education unanimously approved the K12 Flex Academy in San Francisco, and that the ultimate point is that this charter school is simply good for children.
No representatives from MDUSD spoke on this matter.
Mr. Borsuk then invited comments from the public, calling forward K12 Flex Academy Board Member Catherine Walcott, who spoke of how K12 Flex Academy offers a public school option that expands the number of courses to which students have access and that offers technology combined with a personal touch; she noted that the school board in San Francisco expressed a desire to head in the direction of online instruction and spoke of a strong interest in learning from the experience of having K12 Flex Academy in their district, and she stated that the school is prepared to examine data on a regular basis and work with school leaders to continually improve the program; she urged the Board to approve the charter petition.
Dr. Carlota del Portillo, a K12 Flex Academy board member, then addressed the Board and described her educational background and experience; she stated that her main concern has always been for educationally disadvantaged youth and that she joined the K12 Flex Academy’s board because she feels that the future of this nation must be based on educating the young; and she described the ways in which the K12 Flex Academy can help students become successful and emphasized how one of her missions is to ensure that all students at the school are able to write English well.
Gary Veasey then addressed the Board and spoke in support of the K12 Flex Academy; he described how is daughter is using the program’s online program and how extremely impressed he has been with their curriculum and organization.
Joann Jacobs then addressed the Board, introduced her eighth grade daughter, and spoke in favor of the K12 Flex Academy; she described her search for an educational program that would not require her daughter to sit for six hours at a time in a classroom where she might not be able to ask questions or participate in her own learning; her search for an alternative educational program led to a charter school in MDUSD; and she has become a believer in charter schools because they give parents an opportunity to enroll their children in a program that fits their children’s learning needs best, and she feels that the K12 Flex Academy sounds like an excellent program and is one that should be offered as an option to all children in the county.
(Northgate High School parent) Linda Loza then addressed the Board, explaining that two years ago she was frustrated when she learned that AP French would not be offered at her child’s high school in MDUSD, which led to her researching and identifying the K12 Flex program as a solution to this problem; the MDUSD administration set up a committee and studied the curriculum at length; the MDUSD board approved the curriculum unanimously, and AP French has been offered at Northgate High School through Flex Public Schools since that time; however, when she and a group of parents explored enrolling their children full time in Flex Public Schools’ online program, they spoke of their interest in having this online program taught in a school setting, and she enumerated the benefits of this type of combined instructional program; and she urged the Board to approve the charter petition so that parents would have an educational choice for their children.
J. Mills then addressed the Board as a concerned parent and citizen regarding the current public schools system; he stated that public schools are losing their legitimacy, which may not be deserved, but now that fewer households in MDUSD have school-age children, fewer people feel invested in the local public schools; there are concerns that public schools are not evolving at the same rate as the rest of life is evolving; he stated that he believes that K12 Flex Academy will bring both innovation and accountability to education; he described how all other organizations have had to change and be flexible, and schools should, too; he sees tremendous desire in teachers he knows to serve students better but that the mechanisms are not always in place; however, from his review of the K12 Flex Academy model and his discussion with Mr. Kushner, he noted real problem-solving innovations, more individualized attention to students, a wider variety of academic topics being offered, and better utilization of time; he alleged the present educational system is broken because there are too many students, not enough teachers to teach every topic, and not enough space in which to teach a large number of subjects; therefore, this is an opportunity to be explored, and if the academy is successful, it could serve as a model for other schools and districts; lastly, he stated that accountability is of utmost importance and that without choice, there cannot be accountability.
Lisa Corr, who is a partner in the legal firm that provides legal representation to Flex Public Schools and helped them draft their charter school petition, offered to answer any questions about the petition either during the meeting or with the Board’s legal counsel at a later time.
The last speaker, Tikiya Hassan, a junior student at K12 Flex Academy in San Francisco, then addressed the Board to describe her positive experiences in the learning environment at the Academy (e.g., individualized learning pace, classrooms to receive extra help from teachers, 130 classes are offered).
At this juncture, Mr. Borsuk again invited any representatives from MDUSD to present comments, but no one stepped forward. Legal counsel Mary Ann Mason then confirmed with the clerk to the board that a notice of the meeting was sent to MDUSD, and she also confirmed with the Board members that they had received copies of the petition and copies of the petitioner’s responses to the district’s findings of fact.”
After the meeting, I spoke to Tikiya, 17, who commutes from Vallejo to the Flex Academy in San Francisco. She and her mother plan to move to the city soon, she said.
“I needed a school where I could go at my own pace,” she said. “It’s a whole different environment. Flex Academy is a good school for anybody.”
She said it reminds her of college because she uses a laptop and can ask her teachers for help, if she needs it. Her mother, Mia Jackson, said she felt Tikiya’s previous schools had failed her and she had been prepared to home school her daughter.
Jackson said she likes the Flex Academy because her daughter goes to a school campus where teachers give her individualized instruction.
“They have a credit recovery program so she can take classes she didn’t do so well in before at her own pace,” Jackson said. “One thing that really caught my attention was that the principal said you can do four years in two years, depending on your motivation.”
Julie Ewing, whose children attend the Eagle Peak Montessori charter school in Walnut Creek and Sequoia Middle School in Pleasant Hill, said she’s not comfortable sending her children to her neighborhood schools in the Monument Corridor of Concord because the campuses are low-performing and are focused on narrowing the achievement gap for Spanish-speaking children.
“We don’t speak Spanish,” she said. “Living in a neighborhood with No Child Left Behind schools, I didn’t feel like those were the best choices for my children. But I do not want to have to move to find an education that would serve my children well.”
Since Eagle Peak only serves children through fifth grade, Ewing said she would like to see a charter for middle and high school students.
“I love the student-directed curriculum,” she said of Eagle Peak. “My daughter works at an accelerated pace. But you can get help in areas where you need it.”
Kushner said he’s confident he can argue persuasively about Flex Academy’s ability to overcome the budget and curriculum questions raised by the County Office of Education.
If the charter appeal is denied, the school can appeal to the State Board of Education.
Do you think the County Board of Education should allow the school to open?