The Big Story: Chipman charter’s rocky road (part two)
Second of two parts
Michael and Joy Johnson experienced many of The Academy of Alameda charter school’s troubles firsthand. Joy Johnson visited classes at the school after the couple’s son, Zane – “a kid who loves school,” her husband said – complained he didn’t want to go.
“Compared to what I was observing, it was worse than Zane described,” Joy Johnson said.
Johnson said she sat in on a few minutes of a history class that was “just out of hand.” She said teacher ignored students in the class who were throwing paper balls at each other, “and they’re looking back at me like, ‘Are you going to say anything, lady?’”
She said the school was evacuated due to a gas smell when she took a break from attending the classes, but she didn’t receive a communication from the school about it that day, as they have for similar incidents at other schools their children have attended.
Johnson said that teachers seemed more in control of the classes she observed at Wood Middle School, and students seemed more engaged. And she and her husband said the school is much quicker to notify them about events there.
“It was literally night and day,” Joy Johnson said of the classroom environment at Wood.
The Johnsons also received a truancy notice for their son, one of dozens erroneously sent out to families whose students were right where they were supposed to be. School leaders blamed the school’s schedule, which changes the time of day students have each class, and the new attendance system the school uses, though they acknowledged the system is being used district-wide.
The couple pulled their son out of the school in December, after undertaking a decision-making process that included meeting with an educational consultant and talking with teachers, board members and other parents and students. They said they weren’t convinced that improvements would be made soon enough to make a difference in their son’s schooling.
They detailed their concerns in a December 5 letter to the school’s board and PTA leaders and Ron Mooney in the hope that it would catalyze improved conditions at the school.
“We value your input and are sorry that you have not found the program to be what is needed by your son, and understand your decision to withdraw,” the Academy board’s then-president, O’Neil, said in an e-mailed response. “While we have not achieved every one of our goals for the Academy, we do believe that we are moving forward toward meeting the work we have set out.”
Special education lacking
Other parents said the Academy seemed overwhelmed by the number of special education students enrolled there. Cyndi Sutter-Dominguez said the school seemed ill-prepared to serve her son and nearly 70 other special education students, even though she said the school’s administrators told her that her son, Cameron, was exactly the student they were working to serve. (In addition to its 70 special education students, the school has 20 students in intervention classes, said Lori MacDonald, the school’s acting director.)
Sutter-Dominguez said she was surprised and disappointed it took the school six months to implement her severely dyslexic son’s individual education plan because it lacked the staff and resources needed to do so, even though the school knew what her son needed and was legally required to provide it. Even though she had talked with school staff in June about what her son would need, she said, it wasn’t in place when the doors opened in September.
Even recently, said Sutter-Dominguez – who acknowledged MacDonald had warned her the school could have a rough year but stayed at the school to keep her son with teachers and staff he had been with since the fifth grade – she found that two of her son’s teachers were struggling to implement the plan. (Sutter-Dominguez also praised Betsy Ingram, who’s in charge of special education at the Academy.)
MacDonald said that not all the students who came to the school identified their special needs, specifically, new students coming from Oakland. (The school listed 74 non-Alameda students as of September 23.) But Sutter-Dominguez questioned that assertion, saying the school bragged about retaining 95 percent of its students. An additional special education teacher started at the school on Thursday.
Parents said the school struggled to educate high-achieving students and that teachers were overwhelmed by students with special educational needs, who comprise around 15 percent of the student body. One parent who asked not to be identified said their child wasn’t feeling challenged this year. The year before, the student’s core teacher “was basically teaching them on almost a college level,” assigning them to pluck vocabulary words from articles in The New York Times. (Pam Arneson, the school’s new PTA president, said her high-achieving daughter made the same complaint, but was moved to another class – a sign of the charter’s flexibility, she said.)
The school’s enforcement of its uniform policy, parents said, is emblematic of its troubles. The policy – which originally required students to wear black or khaki pants, skirts or shorts and black or white polos – has been changed so that students are now only required to wear clothes in a range of colors – khaki, blue or black pants and white, black, green, blue or gray polo shirts – a move school leaders, who originally said they’d pay for uniforms, said was being done out of respect for students’ financial situation. (A January 14 note on the Academy’s website reminds students not to come to school in their pajamas.)
And some parents complained that several bathrooms at the school had been closed. They described incidents where feces had been found smeared on bathroom walls.
School’s leaders reply
MacDonald denied the school’s classrooms are out of control, though Bill Schaff, who heads the school’s governing board, acknowledged that new teachers at any school may lack classroom management skills. She said students are allowed to take time-outs in a special section of each classroom called Australia. They can also get a pass to the school office.
“Students can take the opportunity to redirect themselves. Our experience is, there hasn’t been pandemonium anywhere,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald and Schaff acknowledged the school’s communication and paperwork issues, and they said they’ve taken steps to correct those. The school has hired Christine Strena, a parent who also serves as head of Alameda’s PTA Council and as a program director for the Alameda Education Foundation, to provide communications support. And they have brought on former school board member Gail Greely and retired Alameda High School principal Mike Janvier to help improve procedures and operations.
The school’s board has also adopted a timeline for hiring a new executive director and is working on job descriptions for that position and someone to handle the school’s finances, a position listed in the school’s charter. And they are reaching out to parents for more help.
“We have good people and good parents,” Schaff said. “They believe in this school. And they believe this is their community school.”
MacDonald said the school has been consistent in following through on disciplining students who break the school’s academic rules; the Academy’s director of school culture, Annalisa Moore, told The Island suspensions are up from last year.
“We’re certainly not ignoring these problems, and we’re not just throwing a Band-Aid on them. We’re really trying to prepare (students) to be responsible citizens and to be respectful and to be caring. It just is taking time,” MacDonald said.
This is the Academy that MacDonald wants a reporter to see: Quiet classrooms where students are working together to dissect novels.
MacDonald allows a reporter brief visits to two classrooms after a 90-minute question and answer session with herself, Schaff, Moore, Arneson and Strena. A white-haired man stands sentry in the school’s small, open-air courtyard.
In teacher Allyson Schoolcraft’s room, students quietly discuss science fiction novels they’ve chosen to read; next door, Tyler Fister asks students to line up in different areas of the room based on their agreement or disagreement with statements about “Maniac Magee,” a book about the racism that afflicts a divided town.
During the question and answer session, two students are ushered into the office with green slips of paper, which are given to students for classroom achievements. One student is praised for taking good notes, while another is lauded for good participation in class.
Greely, who helped design Alameda’s Bay Area School of Enterprise charter and works as a consultant, said it’s challenging to start a charter school, which is in effect its own district. She said the school’s front office staff is “experienced,” and she described the environment there as “orderly.”
“That school runs quite well,” Greely said of the Academy.
The school’s main goal is to raise achievement, and that means higher test scores – something MacDonald acknowledged the Academy won’t have until August (though Schaff said he thinks school leaders will have a better idea of whether their programs are working next year). The charter envisioned a school-wide score of 800 or more – the state’s standard of proficiency – after the school is open for three years. In its final year, Chipman’s school-wide score was 740, district documents show.
MacDonald said the school has been internally tracking students’ proficiency in math and English Language Arts, the two subjects assessed by state tests. Her goal is to have between 80 percent and 100 percent of the students proficient in those two subjects by the end of the year; right now, the school is hovering at about 65 percent in each, she said.
MacDonald and Schaff said the school has accomplished other things in its first year, too. Just getting the doors open was a major accomplishment, Schaff said. MacDonald said she thinks uniform assessment of students, something that wasn’t done before, was also an accomplishment, and that a culture of respect has been created at the Academy.
“Across the board, we have been able to establish a culture here of high levels of respect. It feels really safe,” MacDonald said.
But Kahn, who said her husband ultimately decided to pull their son from the school based on the board’s response to the Johnsons’ letter, said she felt students, and not the school’s administration, were in charge at the Academy. She said rules weren’t uniformly enforced.
Kahn, who is hoping the district will consider a 7th and 8th grade program at Encinal High School, praised her son’s teachers but said the program wasn’t any different from what he is now receiving at Wood, which is not what that charter is supposed to be.
“It’s supposed to be fundamentally different,” Kahn said.
The Big Story is a new running feature on The Island that will explore local issues in depth.