Off the charter learning

Justin Chang shows off a painting he created by folding together

Tucked away in a modest cluster of portable classrooms on IOOF Avenue near downtown, Gilroy Prep School is quietly blossoming since it opened in fall 2011.

After crawling from concept to reality in a span of 10 years, the budding K-2 charter with six teachers and 180 students has a humble facade – but the daily regime of this forward-thinking scholastic seedling ebbs and flows like a bustling beehive.



“Tell me it’s cool.’”   

“It’s cool.”

Such is the constant volley of verbiage between GPS teachers like Crystal Toriumi and a group of first-grade students engrossed in a hands-on reading lesson. Teaching methods and classroom dynamic are designed to keep children constantly involved; leaving little room for distraction.

“One of the most important things is keeping kids engaged by having that back and forth between teacher and student, so the student’s mind is staying active and involved,” said James Dent, former principal of Eliot Elementary School for four years in Gilroy.

Dent now serves as principal at GPS, which he helped open this year.

“If you’re not breaking that disengagement, you can see the kids – it’s almost like the leaves are falling off the tree in fall,” he said.

The charter is the brainchild of GPS kindergarten teacher Sharon Waller, a veteran educator and former speech therapist at Luigi Aprea Elementary School. After working in a district “bound up by its own largeness,” Waller said she was drawn more than a decade ago to the independently designed format of a charter school.

Unlike public schools, charters allow educators to custom-create their ideal learning model by cherry-picking curriculums, programs and teaching methods – then scrapping whatever they view as ineffective.

As a smaller school, Dent explained how GPS can adapt to the unique learning needs of individual students by offering tiered instruction based on ability. Improvement is also tracked through monthly progress reports which are also sent home to parents. Whereas having the same teacher all year long “leads to a little bit of stagnation,” Dent explained that students begin the day with a homeroom teacher but migrate to math, reading, computer, music, art and dance classes. They’re also broken up into smaller, skill-appropriate reading groups. Some GPS students work with up to six different adults daily in groups with ratios ranging from 2:1 to 30:1.

“It’s really nice that they can come in here and work on their own pace,” said Kristina Minoza, who runs the computer lab for kindergarten and first-grade. “They’re not all stuck at one level.”

GPS currently offers grades kindergarten through second-grade, has a total staff of 11 and will expand by tacking on another grade each year up to the eighth grade. GPS is open to all students, although children in Gilroy are given enrollment priority over students in neighboring cities. GPS has its own Board of Education with seven trustees, but it must renew its charter through the Gilroy Unified School District on June 30, 2013. It’s a Title I school, meaning that its aim is to improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students.

Right now, the facility has six portable classrooms, an administrative office, one computer lab, a cafeteria, five para-educators and six full-time teachers, including Dent – who fulfills multiple roles as administrator, principal and multi-subject teacher.

GPS is currently paying its teachers approximately 7 to 10 percent higher than the average GUSD teacher (of the corresponding  skill set and experience level). The longterm goal is to pay GPS teachers somewhere between 15 to 20 percent more than the average GUSD teacher salary, Dent said. Teachers salaries at GPS range from $46,000 to $96,000, with benefits comparable to those at GUSD. There is also a midyear bonus, and a bonus for teachers who meet the state’s Academic Performing Index goals.

The Gilroy Board of Education approved the petition to launch GPS in a unanimous vote in November 2010; a move that met with support and opposition. In light of recent state budget cuts to education, some parents and teachers were concerned that opening a charter in the cash-strapped district would divert students (and, subsequently, state funding) away from Gilroy’s eight elementary and three junior high schools.

Despite the copious start-up hurdles, the fledgling school is strengthening its foothold and developing a sense of place in Gilroy. 

“There hasn’t been any outreach coming towards us from the greater community, but I think over the years GPS will become part of Gilroy’s fabric,” said Dent, stopping to chat during lunchtime on Feb. 27. “Right now, in some people’s minds, it’s too early to judge what GPS really is, because they haven’t seen it, and they can’t really compare us to anybody because we don’t have any test scores yet.”

If monthly progress reports of each student indicate where the school is headed, GPS is headed for success. Dent said student scores on computer learning programs such as Success Maker and ST math are high; reading fluency is also improving.

The average second-grade student, for example, read 77,000 words in January.

“At other schools where I’ve worked, we’ve set general word count goals for fifth-graders at 40,000 per month, so second-graders averaging 77,000 is pretty darn awesome on their part,” said Dent.

At the beginning of the year, second-grade students considered “way behind” in reading averaged 10 to 15 words read per minute. Now, most of those students are reading between 50 to 60 words per minute. The average second-grader at GPS is reading around 92.

California’s benchmark for the Academic Performing Index is 800, Dent anticipates GPS will hit the 900 mark in its first year.

“That has been my goal since the beginning of this whole adventure,” he said.

An unprecedented six GUSD elementary schools scored above the 800 API mark this year, although none broke 900.

Dent said his goal is to see students achieve 100 percent proficiency scores in the ST Math program by the end of the year. One-third of GPS first-graders have hit that mark already.

Another noticeable ingredient in the GPS formula is a healthy dose of competition and positive reinforcement.

“Class, you beat them by 4 percent. One-second party!” said GPS teacher Amy Atlas during a math lesson Feb. 27.

Her class responded by clapping their hands and exclaiming “oh yeah!” in unison.

Each grade is portioned into two groups (i.e., in kindergarten it’s koalas vs. kangaroos). Teachers keep track of progress; displaying tallied points on dry erase boards.

“It’s a crazy schedule. It’s a little different,” said Atlas, who taught in the Morgan Hill Unified School District for two years prior to being hired at GPS. “But the students have shown so much growth. They excel with different teaching strategies. The kids here are so driven to learn.”

The campus is located at the former site of the El Portal Leadership Academy, a now defunct charter school once run by the Mexican American Community Service Agency.

Per an enrollment clause outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding between GPS and GUSD, the charter must have 60 students in each grade. Hitting that mark in the 2012-13 school year shouldn’t be an issue, as Dent said GPS had 70 children on its waiting list for 2011-12. Another 130 students are lined up to enroll in kindergarten next year.

If news gets out that GPS doesn’t assign homework (save for some nightly reading requirements) that list could swell.

“It’s been proven that homework – especially in younger grades – is a detractor from family life,” said Dent. “If you’re already doing sports and then coming home to homework, it’s a recipe for disaster. Everybody is screaming and yelling at each other by 11 p.m. at night. The extended school day is the homework.”

Unlike other Gilroy schools, which release students between 2:15 p.m. and 2:35 p.m., students at GPS are in school until 4 p.m. Many also come in early on a volunteer basis with their parents, who bring their children around 7:30 a.m. to use the computer lab.

As far as funding goes, “financially speaking, the school is doing fantastic,” said Dent.

GPS will head into the 2012-13 school year with an operating budget of $350,000. This will go up to $700,00 in the next three years as more grades are added.

Unlike GUSD schools, GPS gets its state funding directly from the county – as if GPS were its own district. This allows GPS to be more efficient with its spending and budgeting decisions, Dent said. Although GUSD is faced with losing $3 to $7 million in state funding next year due to California’s budget crisis, Dent said GPS is financially stable: With just 11 staff members, the charter is a much smaller, leaner system. Dent and the school’s one office manager fill-in wherever needed by helping out in the cafeteria, playing nurse, etc.

GPS also got a leg up at the beginning of the year with a start-up grant award totaling approximately $575,000 from the state of California.

Expansion plans in the near future involve a school garden, more portables, a bigger cafeteria and utilizing iPads in classrooms, but the greatest problem is the playground – or lack thereof.

“The biggest blight on this school is that there is no playground,” said Dent, indicating in the direction of an enclosed blacktop area he described as “Third World.”

GPS has full access to an onsite gymnasium owned by MACSA, although Dent hopes future fundraising will fatten the playground nest egg. So far, $3,025 of the needed $40,000 has been raised. GPS can use some of its operating budget to help pay for the playground, but there won’t be a lot of extra this year, he said.

Nonexistent playground aside, the horizon is wide open for GPS – a seedling with potential to spread its vines. The long-term plan is to create a charter school model program that can be expanded farther south, Dent said.

“We want to go into communities with underperforming schools, and help them improve,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the students’ background is. They can all achieve at extremely high levels.”

• A charter school that opened in the fall of 2011.
• Located: 277 IOOF Ave. Call: (408) 432-5750
• Currently serves grades K-2. GPS will expand by one grade eachyear until reaching eighth grade
• Has room for 60 students per grade. GPS currently has 180students enrolled. A projected 150 students are expected to be onthe waiting list to register for kindergarten in the 2012-13 schoolyear. 
• The enrollment lottery for GPS will take place April 21.
• To download and fill out an intent-to-enroll form,
• School Board members: Sharon Waller (Chair); Art Barron (ViceChair); Deanne Gamba (Secretary); Brett Mosher (Treasurer); JamesGargiulo; Paul Nadeau 

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