Gilroy Prep School leaders hopeful for Hollister expansion

Students eat their graham cracker snack as they walk to their

Two years after Gilroy Prep School opened its doors and made big waves for receiving the highest Academic Performing Index Score in the district’s history, a pivotal moment is approaching Tuesday as charter school leaders cross their fingers and hope to receive the stamp of approval on their newest expansion effort.

The GPS leadership team, which established a flagship school in 2010 on I.O.O.F Avenue in Gilroy, heads a charter management organization called Navigator Prep. Their goal is to spread successful learning models and lower the achievement gap by establishing additional charter schools in up to eight other cities.

Navigator Prep’s recent endeavor to lay the groundwork for a charter school in Hollister hit a roadblock in October, however. The Hollister School District made a controversial move and paid a law firm to seek out “deficiencies” in the petition submitted by Navigator Prep. The final 31-page report, which GPS’s attorney underlined as “nit picky,” recommended grounds for denying the petition.

“Their report was pretty rough,” admitted GPS Principal James Dent.

After Navigator Prep revised and resubmitted the petition Nov. 2, Dent – who diplomatically acknowledged the Hollister School District was “doing their due diligence” by scrutinizing the petition – has a positive outlook.

“We are very thankful that they actually gave us a chance to revise it, actually then voting ‘no’ on it outright,” he said. “We turned in a better petition…it forced us to go back to the typewriter and address things that we maybe didn’t explain well enough.”

The rigorous petition process GPS experienced with Hollister will arm Navigator Prep with valuable practice and precedence as it prepares to work with additional districts, Dent noted.

GPS is coming back to the table with staff’s approval for recommendation this time around, he noted. The Hollister Board of Education is slated to vote on the petition again during its regular meeting that begins at 6 p.m. Tuesday at 2690 Cienega Road.

“We’re all very excited. They drafted a Memorandum of Understanding with us and it looks like it’s going to go through,” Dent said, adding that Navigator Prep is “hoping to avoid that naturally conflictive relationship between a charter (school) and its district.”

He’s also anticipating news today on a federal startup grant that Navigator Prep applied for on behalf of Hollister Prep School. The grant will amount to either $350,000 or $575,000 and be distributed over a period of three years.

If all goes as anticipated, the new charter will open its doors in fall 2013 and coexist on one of two potential campuses with chronically poor academic achievement and a high number of students from low-income families. It will offer kindergarten through second grade with 60 students per grade, and will expand by tacking on another grade each year up to the eighth grade.

“We believe that if we can put these schools in communities like Hollister, Salinas and Watsonville, someday it’s going to drive the other schools to learn some new things,” said Dent. “That’s one of our main goals as an organization: Wherever we do open a school, we want to see the entire district do better. If other schools aren’t doing better, it makes us feel like we’re not being as successful as we could be.”

About GPS: Navigator Prep’s flagship charter school

Now in its second year of operation after 10 years in the making, GPS is being hailed by the Gilroy Board of Education for having “very impressive outcomes that have been achieved in a very, very short period of time,” praised Board President Tom Bundros.

The charter broke the 970 API barrier – the state’s benchmark for this score that measures school success is 800 – and is also the highest-performing first-year charter out of 500 in the state of California since 2006. The previous high score was 957.

Hollister’s most recent score API score as a whole was 768.

Right now, GPS consists of a modest cluster of portables on IOOF Avenue. The “lean machine” offers grades kindergarten through third grade and has a staff of 11. GPS is open to all kindergarten students via enrollment lottery, although precedence is given to families already living in GUSD boundaries, or students who have an older sibling attending the school.

Some of Navigator Prep’s methods include longer school days, eliminating unions and tenure, merit pay for teachers, an emphasis on proper behavior and more parent involvement in the classroom.

The charter also operates on thrifty strategies. This entails a creative staffing model, which saves overhead on personnel, employing a reduced administrative team, using technology effectively, vigorous fundraising and conservative purchasing practices, such as buying refurbished or used items.

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

The classrooms at GPS are designed to be “extremely active” learning environments where “students are engaged 100 percent of the time,” Dent previously explained.

A sample of other characteristics that set the GPS model apart include a reactive learning environment that offers tiered instruction based on ability; an extended school day with art, music and dance enrichment classes; tracking closely the statistics of each students’ progress with monthly reports sent home to parents; and having students work with multiple teachers throughout the day, which prevents stagnation, Dent said.

“They’ve had a lot of time to think about it and discuss it,” said Dent, of the Hollister School Board. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’re open to the possibility of helping the overall education quality in Hollister.”

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