Photograph by Gabe Meline
COOLIN' AT THE PLAYGROUND YA KNOW: Emma, a first-grader at Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts, would be separated from her brother if a plan to split the school took effect.
Charting the Path
As public school campuses dry up, charter schools adjust to sharing the leftover space
By Leilani Clark
Eight years ago, the classrooms at Doyle Park Elementary were full of children, with attendance at the Santa Rosa campus reaching 377 students. In the years since No Child Left Behind was enacted, however, the number of students at the public school has fallen to 230. Several of the classrooms on campus sit empty and unused.
Yet a recent proposal by Santa Rosa City Schools to integrate charter school classes into the public school campus has some affected parents upset.
Under the plan, the kindergarten and first grade programs at Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts (SRCSA) would be relocated to share space at Doyle Park Elementary School's campus. Introduced at a Jan. 12 Board of Education meeting, the proposal anticipates future enrollment growth at the charter school while filling available rooms at the public school. An 80 percent growth in enrollment since SRCSA's first year of operation, in 2007, has pushed the school beyond capacity.
In contrast, Doyle Park Elementary has experienced an acute and ongoing decline in enrollment in a trend that threatens to further dismantle already ailing public schools. With eight classrooms open, the school currently houses special education classes as well as a district-operated class for deaf and hard of hearing infants. These classes would be moved elsewhere in the fall of 2011 if the proposal goes through.
"We are positive and open about how things would work out. People are curious about the possibilities of how that would look," says Kaesa Enemark, principal at Doyle Park Elementary.
However, many SRCSA parents who attended the school board meeting say they felt blindsided by the possibility of splitting up students of the charter school, which itself is a former public elementary school closed due to declining enrollment. "There hasn't been a long-term plan to address growth reasonably and sustainably," says Hannah Hoffman, the parent of a first grader and one of the plan's more vocal opponents. "This is a knee-jerk reaction to the obvious popularity of the program." Hoffman has helped to form a group called Parents for the Sustainable Growth of SRCSA which established a Facebook page within 72 hours of the school board meeting.
Hoffman and other parents share concerns about bussing two sets of classes to Doyle Park elementary and splitting up siblings who currently attend the school together. Additionally, some parents do not want to see the K-8 setup of the school threatened, which lends itself to mentoring by the older students.
But Doyle Park Elementary's location, sharing as it does a boundary with Doyle Park—a location that sometimes hosts transient populations—could be a contributing factor in the uproar, suggests one parent who asked not to be named.
Campus sharing between charter and public schools is nothing new. Approved by voters in 2002, Proposition 39 guarantees that public school facilities be shared equally within the school district, including among charter school students. Before Prop. 39, charter schools were sometimes relegated to less than optimal sites and conditions.
Santa Rosa Charter School has shared a campus with Comstock Middle School in northwest Santa Rosa since 2007. Along with a few portable classrooms, the 16-year-old K-8 independent charter school leases two wings at Comstock—which has also experienced drastic declining enrollment—from the Santa Rosa City School District, the charter school's monitoring agency.
LaDonna Moore, director of Santa Rosa Charter School, explains that a lot of thought has gone into making the relationship with the neighboring middle school work. The students are on different bell schedules, and a black fence separates the two campuses.
"There isn't a great deal of interaction between the two populations," Moore says, going on to say that the relationship between the two schools is amiable and that their space is shared "pretty well." Moore was impressed, she says, when Comstock invited the charter school students to combine sports teams.
Yet even as the adjacent schools share space and sports teams, demographically they rank miles apart. While Comstock Middle School is 66 percent Latino, the charter school has a Latino student population of just 18 percent. Sixty-seven percent of the students at the charter school are white.
"Many charter schools do not attract a large Hispanic population, and we've wondered why," says Moore. "Families don't know the choices out there, or they might be more inclined to follow tradition. It's been a topic among charter schools. How do you attract families who may not know the options? How do we get the word out there?"
Stone Bridge School, a Waldorf-inspired program in Napa, has shared a Napa Valley Unified School District campus with Salvador Elementary since the summer of 2007. According to Darryl Centers, administrator of Stone Bridge, each school has its own section of the campus—with the two rarely having to share space—and the relationship has been nothing but smooth.
"It's very positive. They're great, considerate neighbors," says Centers. "We stagger the arrival and departure time and the recess times. We give each other the space we need. It's kind of neat to work with another group and be able to collaborate in that way."
In addition, the two schools have combined forces on Boys and Girls Club activities, as well as a Day of the Dead celebration. Centers sees the proximity of the schools as a boon for both students and administrators, an attitude shared by Enemark, who says that the teachers at her small elementary school are excited about the possibility of collaborating with teachers from the Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts.
In the Sausalito Marin City School District, the charter school Willow Creek Academy shares a campus with Bayside Elementary. Carol Cooper, Willow Creek's head of school, says that the relationship between the two schools has been made easier by the fact that they share a large space on an unusual campus with a baseball field in the middle. The school is on a hill, making it simple to create physical divisions. At the same time, Willow Creek has grown from 37 students to 70 since opening. This has led to minor issues, but Cooper says that the two campuses have always been able to work out any problems.
"It's easily dealt with," says Cooper. "Just as in a house, when a family grows, there is more competition for the space. We built our own playground on an opposite side of the campus from Bayside classrooms. I'm sure that either one of us would rather have the campus to ourselves, but we are pretty good neighbors." (The schools share after-school programs and play sports together.)
While the majority of administrators view campus-sharing as a positive trend, the disparities between Doyle Park elementary school students and the charter school students has some concerned. The demographics are already skewed: 62 percent of the charter school students are white, and 36 percent qualify as socioeconomically disadvantaged, while at Doyle Park, 70 percent of the students are Latino, and 76 percent are considered disadvantaged. Opposing the integration of the schools, some suggest, looks bad on paper.
It's that very aspect which concerns Elizabeth Nern. Nern has two children at the Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts, and says that she is "primarily disgusted with the inequity" of the proposal to move classrooms to Doyle Park.
"By putting our kids on this impoverished campus, they will be benefiting from improvements, but what about the kids at Doyle Park? What kind of dynamic will that create? It seems outrageous," says Nern. Chief among her worries are suggestions in the school board proposal for a new dance room and playground to be built on the campus exclusively for the SRCSA students.
"I would venture to guess that the staff at Doyle Park are appalled," suggests Nern. "How do you tell a six-year-old that the really fancy dance room is not for you?
The community that we have created at the charter school would not condone this either."
Nern believes the school board should consider chartering a sister school, built on the same concepts that make SRCSA in demand. Rather than shutting out families and students, she says a sister school would allow more students to gain access.
Santa Rosa City School Board member Larry Haenel agrees that the school should expand its campus facilities in order to allow more students to attend, and that moving the kindergarten and first grade classes is one way to do this.
"It's just the start of the conversation," says Haenel. "We loved hearing the proposal. We want to give as many kids as possible that opportunity."
Michelle Sparks, whose three children attend SRCSA, says she has mixed feelings about the plan. "On one hand, my children would not be at school if they had not opened up an additional kindergarten this past year. We were lucky to get in because the board opened it up. I would like other parents interested in that unique curriculum to have that same opportunity."
But Sparks also worries about the costs of bussing students back and forth, as well as the emotional effect on the kids who would have to readjust to new settings and situations on their return to the original charter school campus for the second grade.
An administrator for 10 years, Enemark says that "children are resilient and can handle things more than parents think."
But parents have accused the district of pushing for expansion as a way to gain more money, since the district receives money for each registered student. "There are some questions about whether this is more about the bottom line than about the students," says Hoffman.
Haenel acknowledges that there is a financial impetus for the district to expand the charter school—since the charter allows the school to pull from outside of the district and thus receive more funding—but he says that the board does want to work with parents to come up with a solution. "The idea for that proposal was that it would have the least impact on the charter school, but we are finding out that this is not the case," says Haenel.
As a way to iron out the differing agendas, two town-hall meetings will be held to discuss the potential repercussions and benefits of the plan. A town-hall meeting at SRCSA is scheduled for Feb. 2, while the Doyle Park community will come together on Feb. 16. For those interested in the way that relations between charter schools and traditional schools will play out as the state and the country move increasingly toward alternative models of education, this is only the beginning of the dialogue.