A new charter school for Morgan Hill?

Students eat their graham cracker snack as they walk to their

On the heels of a tight 3-2 vote that will allow the founders of Gilroy’s highly successful charter school to open Hollister Prep next fall, some Morgan Hill parents are raising their hands and hoping their neck of the woods is next.

Gilroy Prep School is soaring ahead with unprecedented academic growth in its two years of operation on IOOF Avenue, and its founders – who have formed a charter management organization called Navigator Prep – are aiming to spread that success to up to eight other cities.

The next stop after Gilroy is officially Hollister, where the School Board voted 3-2 Tuesday night to approve the charter petition submitted by Navigator Prep’s leaders including Principal James Dent and Vice Principal Sharon Waller.

The victory was hard-won for GPS founders, who revised and resubmitted their charter petition after the Hollister School District paid a law firm to seek out “deficiencies” in the petition.

Hollister trustees were slightly less receptive to a new charter school than the seven-member Gilroy Board of Education, which unanimously approved the GPS petition two years ago.

With the Hollister hurdle underfoot, Navigator Prep is hearing from Morgan Hill parents who want their children to have access to Navigator Prep’s learning model – the same one that enabled GPS students to nab the highest Academic Performance Index score in the history of Gilroy Unified School District. The charter broke the state’s 800 API benchmark by receiving a 978; making it the highest-performing first-year charter in the state of California since 2006. The API is the state’s yardstick for measuring school success.

The door to opening a charter school in Morgan Hill is cracking open as well.

“It is still in the very preliminary stages,” notes Vice Principal Waller, who co-founded GPS. “We would love to work with parents to help them solve their concerns.”

Morgan Hill parents have voiced their opinions on the need for a transformation to the district.

“The needs of students were not being met,” said parent Kathlyn Greubel.

Greubel belongs to a group of Morgan Hill parents who banded together with a local community advocacy group – People Acting in the Community Together – to help bring about change in local schools.

Morgan Hill parents such as Greubel are worried about the consistency of quality education in Morgan Hill school curriculums.

“Right now, every year teachers are given a new direction,” said Greubel, who worries how inconsistencies in the classroom impact students.

Gruebel links these inconsistencies with Morgan Hill’s low API scores; the most recent of which was 789 in 2012 – slightly above Hollister, which sits at 761. Parents compare these below-standard scores with Gilroy Unified, which ranks two points above the state benchmark at 802.

Greubel stressed that the addition of a charter school will help increase the district’s overall API score. For Gilroy, the two years following the addition of GPS saw a 25 point increase in GUSD’s API score.

“We need something new and exciting,” remarked China Nave, another concerned Morgan Hill parent.

Though change may not always be welcome, some parents say it is their only option.

“We really have nothing to lose,” said Nave.

“You are always worried with trying to get something new started. But we are not recreating the wheel. I am excited because it brings options,” Gruebel added.

Plans for a possible Morgan Hill charter are built around an 18-month timeline set out by Navigator Prep.

“In the past, we had much less time. We realized that by turning everything in early,” Dent explained. “We will have 10 months to revise it and work on it.”

Proposal details are to be discussed at a meeting between Navigator Prep and the school district sometime next week, Dent confirmed.

MHUSD Superintendent Wes Smith reiterates that the plan of bringing a Navigator Prep School to Morgan Hill is still in the infant stages. However, he did confirm that MHUSD and Navigator Prep will begin discussions next week.

MHUSD School Board President Don Moody is also following the cautious lead of Superintendent Smith, saying, “My hope is to hear more so that I can then form an opinion.”

Greubel states that all Morgan Hill School Board members have been contacted regarding the addition of a charter school, and at least two trustees have agreed to meet and discuss the issue with parents.

“I feel we did what we were supposed to do,” stated Nave. “I’m very excited about bringing another option for parents.”

In the meantime, Navigator Prep is focused on its overarching mission to expand its reach and positive impact on students.

As the charter management organization continues with its goal to establish new charters in additional cities, parents can expect to see the same or similar learning models as those employed at GPS – a charter that offers an innovative model for education that varies from its traditional public school counterparts. Some of those methods include longer school days, eliminating unions and tenure, merit pay for teachers and more parent involvement in the classroom.

“The main reason we decided to open a charter school is the flexibility it provides,” said Dent of GPS, which caters to individual students by adapting to their learning needs.

Unlike public schools, charters such as GPS allow educators to custom-create their ideal learning model. The classrooms at GPS are designed to be “extremely active” learning environments, “where we are trying to break the inattention in class that kids usually have,” Dent explained.

Progressive methods in the classroom isn’t the only way GPS is blazing trails.

From purchasing used textbooks and refurbished technology, to over-budgeting for estimated state budget cuts, GPS has shown that managing costs is not a problem.

Right now, GPS consists of a modest cluster of portables with a staff of 15 and approximately 240 students. It currently offers grades kindergarten through third grade, with plans to tack on another class of 60 students each year until they reach 8th grade. Future Navigator Prep schools will expand in similar fashion.

“It’s all coming together,” said Dent. “The more we get into communities, the more kids we can impact.”


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