Engaged students answer questions from the teacher during class at Gilroy Prep.
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Glowing accolades from the Gilroy Unified School District Board of Education topped off a whirlwind two years for the Garlic Capital’s newest charter school, which is sailing full speed ahead toward its next milestone.

Now in its second year of operation after 10 years in the making, the Gilroy Prep School at 277 IOOF Ave. is being hailed by GUSD trustees for having “very impressive outcomes that have been achieved in a very, very short period of time,” praised Board President Tom Bundros.

With the GPS charter up for renewal, founding member and Principal James Dent gave a culminating presentation to the school board Thursday night on GPS’s unique learning format and skyrocketing progress, which includes the highest ever projected Academic Performing Index score for an elementary school in the history of GUSD.

Tentatively, GUSD superintendent Debbie Fores says the GPS charter renewal will be back on the Oct. 18 School Board agenda.

“I think our school is a place that people who have come and visited walk out of there and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is incredible,’” said Dent.

Most recently, the school celebrated the news that it is expected to receive an API score somewhere between a 960 and 970.

Last year, Luigi Aprea was the highest-scoring GUSD elementary school with an API of 896, while the Dr. TJ Owens Early College Academy – a small high school located on the Gavilan College Campus – registered the highest API in the district at 926. The highest possible score is 1,000; with the California benchmark being 800.

The charter petition – essentially a two-year operating agreement between GPS and GUSD – was unanimously approved by the board in November 2010. It mandates a Memorandum of Understanding regarding logistics such as fees, expenses, the allocation of facilities and enrollment.

Right now, the modest cluster of portables on IOOF Avenue is a “lean machine” that offers grades kindergarten through third grade, has a staff of 11 and will expand by tacking on another grade each year up to the eighth grade. 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.

With the charter agreement up for a possible three- to five-year renewal, the horizon looks sunny and clear. Dent believes the school board will likely approve the new charter by next month.

Trustees requested to review the nitty-gritty particulars of GPS’s multiyear budget projections out of caution, however, before renewing the agreement.

“Given our history with charter schools – and not your school – I want to make sure we’re on rock-solid ground, financially,” said Trustee Mark Good, referring to a debacle surrounding the now-defunct El Portal Leadership Academy in Gilroy.

The embattled El Portal charter school shut down in 2009 after two of its former leaders allegedly used employees’ retirement savings for general operating costs. Charges have been filed by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office against the former two leaders, and the case is making its way through court.

Armed with that cautious optimism, “I fully support the school. What you have done is exactly what we hoped for,” said Good, who joked GPS could put GUSD “out of business.”

“The more successful you are, everyone is going to have to step up to the bar,” he continued. “Either way the kids win. So I support that.”

The charter school should have a $1.3 million surplus over the next five years, according to Dent. Its current operating budget is roughly $2 million, which will grow with the school.

At a time when GUSD is squeaking by financially due to ongoing gargantuan state budget cuts – all Gilroy teachers are taking 10 unpaid furlough days this year – GPS ended the year with a $497,000 surplus.

That money will go back into the general operating budget and help GPS remain in a “sound fiscal position” in the coming years, said GPS co-founder and Vice Principal Sharon Waller.

The budding charter operates on thrifty strategies, Dent explains. This includes having 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 explained.

“There’s nowhere to hide in those classrooms,” echoed Trustee Pat Midtgaard, who has visited GPS on several occasions. “Which is great, because through the years, I saw students who became masters of passivity. There’s nowhere to do that in your classrooms. I saw a lot of good things, and I wish you well.”

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.

Employing iPads and other state-of-the-art technology in the classroom also provides teachers with real-time data, which “helps me to determine which students have mastered the skill, and which students need immediate intervention,” said Heather Parsons, who teaches second- and third-grade math at GPS.

Parsons and her fellow GPS teachers will receive a $2,500 bonus each for reaching their API goal, and students will go on a trip to Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo.

The official scores will be released Oct. 11 from the California Department of Education.

GPS is also the highest-performing first-year charter out of 500 in the state of California since 2006, according to EdTech, a business and development support company for charter schools. The previous high score was 957.

Dent notes that the school has a “diverse” population, with 68 percent of its students being English Language Learners or qualifying for free and reduced lunch.

Moving forward, the Gilroy Prep School board of education hopes to establish charter schools in at least five other cities, starting with Hollister – an effort that is currently underway. Lowering the achievement gap in Gilroy and spreading effective learning models to other GUSD schools is also part of the charter’s mission.

“The best phone call I get is when another principal calls and says, ‘Hey I want come work with your school,’” says Dent. “It means we’re impacting other schools.”

After 10 years spent dreaming up the concept and turning it into a reality,  Vice Principal Sharon Waller calls the rapid growth “exciting” and “scary.”

“We feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to get it right,” she said. “And at the same time, we know what it takes. We know what elements go into a great school – and so we’re anxious to get that going. Every year we don’t, there’s all these kids that aren’t getting the excellent education that they deserve.”

Dent said he left Thursday’s school board meeting feeling “grateful.”

“It felt good to be able to go there two years later and say, ‘we did what we said we would.’”

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