Charter school sails ahead

Eliot Elementary Principal James Dent addresses audience members

With a possible $575,000 in funds dictating the fate of a
fledgling Gilroy charter school 10 years in the making, everything
was hinging on the approval of a Higher Grant Award from the State
of California.

The guillotine was going to fall or not,

said James Dent, principal of Eliot Elementary School.
With a possible $575,000 in funds dictating the fate of a fledgling Gilroy charter school 10 years in the making, everything was hinging on the approval of a Higher Grant Award from the State of California.

“The guillotine was going to fall or not,” said James Dent, principal of Eliot Elementary School.

Since receiving word several days ago their grant would come through, founders of Gilroy Prep School including Dent, Sharon Waller, Karen Humber and Kristyn Corley officially have the monetary green light to charge ahead full steam.

The grant writing process was a collaborative effort by the GPS team, will roll over a period of three years and cover startup and general operating costs, Waller said.

“What are you thinking of for uniforms?” asked one parent during an information meeting Wednesday evening at Gilroy Apartments on 500 IOOF Ave.

Dent – his plate clearly occupied as of late with monumental obstacles such as ensuring GPS could actually open next fall – paused in thought before answering.

“Pants and shirts.”

The response elicited lighthearted laughter from the roughly 30 attendants.

Now that their $575,000 grant is a sure thing, immediate steps include hiring teachers, getting classrooms organized, setting up an enrichment program, solidifying governing policies and continuing negotiations with GUSD concerning the number of classrooms GPS will get.

The charter will be situated at the former location of El Portal Leadership Academy on IOOF Avenue next to South Valley Junior High School in Gilroy, and has plans for a computer lab, cafeteria, playground and library.

“We’re asking for a few more portables than what we asked for initially,” said Dent, adding staff from GUSD has been very helpful with the process.

As he took turns addressing the audience in English and Spanish, Dent said their goal is to have staffing squared away by the end of May. No one has been hired yet officially, but GPS board members have some talent in mind, he noted.

During the meeting, Dent explained to parents GPS will be modeled after the successful Rocketship charter system in San Jose, which has 30-to-1 class size ratios and a smaller number of full time, certificated staff. Four different groups of students will work with teachers in a rotation pattern during the school day.

“We can hire the best and brightest,” he explained. “With this model you have significant savings and costs. It attracts the best of the best. It pays teachers more since there are less teachers.”

In its first year, GPS will have a total of five teachers and one principal, who will also be teaching.

Dent confirmed he will be instructing math at GPS and said he is “very interested in becoming principal.”

“I’m excited,” he said. “I miss teaching.”

Parent involvement is a major constituent for charter schools, as GPS will be relying on parent volunteers for afternoon and evening workshops, plus supplemental activities going on during the school day.

A beaming Waller added community members have stepped in as well with “wonderful” offers to assist with elements such as art, physical education and theater.

Eric and Toni Whedon enrolled their children Jake, a 7-year-old who attends Rucker Elementary School and Katelyn, 5, in GPS a couple weeks ago.

The Whedons said they enjoy staying active with their children’s schools, and like the idea of having more flexibility in the education process. They also feel a charter school may offer more opportunity as their children get older.

“It will be nice to be in a school where all parents have to be involved,” said Toni. “That’s really a draw for us as parents.”

In her son’s first grade class, Toni said, “they have to teach all the same things in all the same classes at the same time, and not all the first graders are ready to do what other first graders are ready to do.”

Eric added he feels there is too much bureaucracy in public schools.

“I’m sure it was all good intentions, but at some point you need to wipe the slate clean and start all over,” he said.

During the first year, GPS will cater to 60 students in each of the kindergarten, first and second grades. Leaders plan to tack on another grade with each passing year.

As of Wednesday, Waller said 260 students have enrolled in GPS, 140 of which are kindergarteners.

“We’re just about good for first and second graders,” she said.

When registration closes March 31, Dent explained a lottery would dictate who gets in and who doesn’t, with precedence awarded to students living within the Gilroy Unified School District.

A student from Gilroy, for example would get four balls in the lottery, where as a Morgan Hill student would get one. The lottery will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 16.

Dent noted younger siblings of GPS students would automatically be granted admission into GPS.

For Waller, a veteran educator who has been working toward opening a charter in Gilroy for the better part of a decade, expressions are all smiles.

“There’s no turning back now,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting.”

The independently designed format of a charter, she explained, allows administrators to incorporate innovative curriculums and tailor programs to specific learning needs.

Waller said a smaller system lets leaders determine what the essential elements are, scrap what isn’t and create the model of an efficient, effective education – even under “dire” economic circumstances.

“This is such a gift we were given by the state,” she said. “To be able to build something so excellent for this community is for me, professionally, a dream come true.”

Gilroy Prep School

– GPS is set to open in August along with the rest of schools in the Gilroy Unified School District

– Located at the former location of El Portal Leadership Academy on IOOF Avenue next to South Valley Junior High School in Gilroy

– Will have school uniforms

– School hours will be from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

– Will not be providing transportation

– Will offer free/reduced lunch programs for those who qualify. The food provider, Revolution Foods, specializes in healthy lunches for students

– A total of 260 students are currently enrolled. Of those students, 140 are kindergarteners

– Will cater to 60 students in each of the kindergarten, first and second grades in its first year. Administrators plans to tack on another grade with each passing year

– Instruction will be in English only

– Plans to schedule vacations during the same vacation times as GUSD

– For more information visit gps.isoars.com or their Gilroy Prep School’s Facebook page

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