The Big Story: Chipman charter’s rocky road
Since her son was born in 1999, Sylvia Kahn has had a mission: To transform Chipman Middle School into a top-notch learning environment for West End students.
“I was going to make that school as great as it could be so that when he got there, it was going to be my dream middle school,” said Kahn, a longtime Alameda educator who helped create The Academy of Alameda charter school, which replaced Chipman this year.
But Kahn said that dream has turned into a nightmare that ultimately led her to pull her son, Evan, out of the school she helped build. She is one of a half dozen parents who spoke with The Island about the troubles the Academy charter is facing in its inaugural year.
Parents said the school’s charter promised a safe, welcoming learning environment tailored to meet the needs of students across the academic spectrum. What they got instead, they said, were chaotic classrooms, bungled paperwork and little if any communication about safety and other issues at the school. Some said they think the new school is worse than the one it replaced.
High-achieving students who felt challenged at Chipman were bored in the new school, some parents said, forced to do the same work they had done the year before. And others said the school’s leaders seemed surprised – and unprepared – for the high number of special education students they faced, even as they bragged that they had managed to attract 95 percent of the students who had attended Chipman the previous year.
Less than three months into the year, the school was rocked by the resignation of its executive director, Dean Tannewitz. The president of the school’s governing board, Ed O’Neil, left less than a month later. (Tannewitz didn’t respond to calls seeking comment, and O’Neil also could not be reached for comment.)
More than two dozen students have left the school so far this year, though the reasons for their departure likely vary. The group includes the son of school board president Ron Mooney, his wife, Barbara – who had headed the school’s PTA – confirmed to a reporter in late December.
The school’s leaders said such troubles are normal for a new school and that they’ve taken several steps to address them. And they said they told parents to expect a difficult first year.
“I don’t blame the parents for wanting that. But you don’t get there instantaneously,” said Bill Schaff, who is now president of the charter’s board, referring to the charter’s high goals.
But parents who spoke with The Island, who said they still believe in the Academy’s guiding charter and think students can have a good experience there, said they thought bad decisions were to blame for the school’s woes. Kahn, for one, said she though the school’s leaders tried to do too much in their first year instead of focusing their energies on a few key things.
“If the bumps that they hit are what they expected – that’s just devastating to me,” Kahn said.
Solving a problem
Schaff said he got involved with the Academy to help resolve a problem for the school district. Chipman was not meeting the testing goals dictated by the federal No Child Left Behind law, and the school board – which Schaff had just left – would soon need to decide whether to close the school, reorganize it, fire most of its teachers or allow the state to take over.
Schools that receive federal Title I funds – money given to schools where 40 percent or more of the students are poor enough to be eligible for free or reduced price lunches – are mandated to meet their testing goals, and they have five years to get back on track if they don’t. It’s a situation that more than 3,000 California schools – including Wood Middle School – now face. And it’s one that comes amidst a growing call for public school reform, and a growing perception that charters can answer that call.
Chipman’s principals had worked hard to boost the school’s sagging test scores, Schaff said, but they faced some big roadblocks. The school has one of the most transient student populations in Alameda, so students would make gains and then leave, or come in at a later grade without the benefit of the extra help the school was providing. Chipman would make gains with some groups of students each year but fall behind with others. But while the school showed overall testing gains during the five years it was given to turn things around – raising its school-wide API score by 66 points – Chipman was required to show testing gains with a full range of subgroups, or face the consequences.
Chartering the school offered a number of benefits. For one, it would allow parents, teachers and administrators to throw out educational methods that are standard in traditional public schools but weren’t working for Chipman’s students. Chartering the school would also allow for more flexibility in spending dollars and setting school hours.
Kahn and others, including Lori MacDonald – who is now the school’s acting director – threw themselves into the task of writing the Academy’s charter, and teachers at Chipman voted to move forward with it. Dozens of parents spoke at school board meetings, some in freshly printed T-shirts bearing the proposed school’s logo: a laurel wreath around the torch of learning.
The 101-page charter they handed the school board on October 27, 2009 laid out a vision of a safe and welcoming – but rigorous – academic environment that focused efforts on boosting learning right down to the paint colors and furniture. The charter’s program, which offered two and a half hours of extracurricular schooling on top of the normal day, was designed to help students at all points of the academic spectrum succeed, “whatever it takes.”
In addition to the extra learning opportunities it promised, the charter anticipated families would offer 20 hours a year in service, and it listed a uniform requirement for students.
“We think that we have found a better way to serve the interests of our incredibly diverse student body,” Ron Whittaker, a member of a founding board that included Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, former Alameda Unified superintendent Ardella Dailey and Schaff, told the school board when he turned in the school’s proposed charter that night.
The school board unanimously approved the charter on December 15 as it was legally required to do, though in earlier meetings, trustee Trish Hererra Spencer offered concerns. Herrera Spencer questioned whether the school’s lower-income students would be able to afford the uniforms called for in the charter and whether all the families involved with the school would be able to handle the volunteer time. She said she wanted West End families to have a traditional public school option in addition to the charter.
And while there were benefits, chartering Chipman also posed some unique challenges.
For one thing, the school – which attracts everyone from formerly homeless youths from the Alameda Point Collaborative to students living in Alameda’s Gold Coast – has an ethnic and economic diversity unmatched by any of the schools the charter’s founders visited, some said, and a spectrum of needs that is just as broad.
The Academy is also huge for a new charter, boasting more than 550 students at the start of the school year. In comparison, the Nea Community Learning Center, a K-10 school that opened its doors in 2009, now serves around 350 students. (Kahn said Schaff insisted the school needed to attract that many students to survive financially, but Schaff denied finances had anything to do with the size of the school.)
Schaff said The Academy has less money than the traditional public school it replaced, though Kahn and others said they were told the charter would get more money per student than Chipman was receiving. A budget he produced at a meeting between the school’s leaders and a reporter showed it has revenues of $3.1 million; school district documents show Chipman had a budget of $3.7 million for the 2009-2010 school year.
Schaff said the school’s leaders initially focused their funding on the classroom but have begun hiring help in other areas.
“Everything we did was focused on academic achievement,” he said.
But Kahn and others, who said they believed the charter setup would provide hiring flexibility traditional public schools don’t have, said they believe some of the school’s hiring decisions played a role in its troubles.
Neither of the two administrators Academy and school district leaders hired had ever run a school. Tannewitz, who was tapped to serve as executive director, had worked as a consultant for three decades, specializing in many of the concepts embedded in the charter. MacDonald, who was hired on as academic director, taught elementary school for eight years before heading to seminary to earn a master’s degree in Biblical studies. She joined Alameda Unified as a teacher in 2009, after short stints as director of family education for San Francisco’s Calvary Church and as a teacher at the FAME charter school in Dublin.
Parents said the school’s leaders hired new teachers who lacked classroom management skills and passed over others who they felt may have better served the school’s unique population, though they were also quick to praise a number of the Academy’s current teachers. (Some noted that Kahn, who helped write the charter and had run an academy inside Chipman for six years, was not hired.) The school also lost much of its office staff; Lester Dixon, a noon supervisor and head of the Cougar Cadet Drum Corps who parents said helped enforce discipline at Chipman, moved on to Nea.
Schaff said the school lost several experienced teachers because they chose to stay with the school district in order to preserve their tenure rights. And he said new teachers with limited classroom management skills can be found in any school in the district, though MacDonald said the school has put a training program in place to help.
Michael and Joy Johnson experienced many of the 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.
The Big Story is a new running feature on The Island that will explore local issues in depth. Check back for part two of this piece on Monday.
CORRECTION: The Island misstated Chipman Middle School’s enrollment in its final year. The correct enrollment figure was 541. The Island regrets the error.