Gilroy Prep’s charter school proposal gives GUSD options

Karen Humber

In addition to kindergarten, first and second grades, the
founders of Gilroy Prep School hope to open with a sixth grade,
which could solve a costly middle school dilemma the school
district has been facing for several years.
In addition to kindergarten, first and second grades, the founders of Gilroy Prep School hope to open with a sixth grade, which could solve a costly middle school dilemma the school district has been facing for several years.

The charter school’s founders plan to bring their proposal before the Gilroy Unified School District Board of Education at the Aug. 26 school board meeting. Though they originally planned to open in August 2011 with two classes each of kindergarten, first and second grade, then add one grade level each year, the founders recently began pondering the idea of opening with a sixth grade as well.

Their intention is to eventually have a kindergarten through 8th grade school.

“Our vision is that we would be supporting the district in their dilemma with this middle school problem they’re having,” said Karen Humber, one of Gilroy Prep’s founders.

By “dilemma,” Humber referred to the steady flow of students migrating from South Valley and Brownell middle schools to the district’s newest, and now largest, Ascencion Solorsano Middle School. With more than 1,100 students, Solorsano has swelled to almost the size of the two other middle schools combined and required almost $650,000 in extra classrooms and restrooms for the upcoming school year.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which was signed into law by former President George Bush, families may transfer their children from a school that is not making federal growth targets – labeled a “Program Improvement” school – to one that has. Brownell and South Valley have not made federal growth targets in at least five years. Solorsano has.

To stem the flow of students to Solorsano, Superintendent Deborah Flores has suggested opening a fourth middle school at the former home of El Portal Leadership Academy. The Academy, which was also a charter school, sat adjacent to South Valley on IOOF Avenue, and was shut down last year after an audit revealed failing academics and possible financial malfeasance. The facility consists of 12 classrooms, restrooms, an office and a multipurpose room. Under Flores’ proposal, the fourth middle school would open in August 2011 with sixth graders and expand to accommodate seventh and eighth graders in subsequent years.

Flores’ proposal regarding the sixth grade option is strikingly similar to the one Gilroy Prep’s founders plan to put forward later this month. They also have their eyes on El Portal as the site for their future school. The major difference is who would educate those students.

“There would be quite a few advantages to having a sixth grade under Gilroy Prep School that the district might not be able to provide,” Humber said.

As a charter school, Gilroy Prep will be able to move quickly with programs that work for students and scrap ones that don’t, its founders said.

“Our hands aren’t as tied,” said Sharon Waller, one of the charter’s founders. “We can adopt programs that work on the spot.”

Several other key differences between the charter school – which would be open to all Gilroy students – and the district’s schools include merit pay, no homework at the lower grades, a longer school day and a greater focus on cutting edge technology.

Though Board President Francisco Dominguez said he was open to the idea of a charter school, he hadn’t yet seen the proposal.

“I guess the question for me is if we have this sixth grade charter option, does that really resolve the Program Improvement issue,” he said.

Humber said it does.

According to No Child Left Behind, if a school district does not have the physical capacity to allow transfers to all eligible students, it can create additional capacity by several means, one of which includes encouraging the creation of new charter schools within the district.

Based on the community response to their proposal, Gilroy Prep’s founders believe parents and the community are ready for their school.

“I think they’re excited to see something new coming to Gilroy,” Humber said. “The community support has been phenomenal.”

Humber and Waller said they believe the response has been positive because of the strength of their program and their reputation within the community. What started as a grassroots effort to offer something new to Gilroy students has turned into a full-fledged campaign backed by countless community members to open a new school, they said. They hope to have their website, www.gilroyprep.com, up and running within the next couple weeks. When asked if they’ve received any negative feedback, they responded with an emphatic “No.”

“I think it’s because it started at our kitchen tables, not in some board room,” Humber said. “It’s so community based.”

Paul Nadeau, the father of a rising first grader at Luigi Aprea Elementary School, read about the school in the newspaper and immediately contacted the founders.

“I was really intrigued by their learning philosophy,” he said. “It’s a better way of learning, not such a rigid, old-school way. They have a much more open approach.”

Not only does he plan to enroll his son in Gilroy Prep, he’s volunteered his technical services to help support the school. He said he plans to be at the Aug. 26 school board meeting.

“I’m looking at this charter school as a way to be better involved,” he said. “There will be a better student to teacher ratio, fewer obstacles as far as getting the supplies needed to educate our kids. It definitely looks like a better opportunity for our kids. I think it’s great.”

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