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The Big Story: Chipman charter’s rocky road

Submitted by on 1, January 28, 2011 – 12:02 am6 Comments

First of two parts.

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.

Dean Tannewitz.

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.

Chipman’s 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.


  • Sean Cahill says:

    The solution will never arrive until the profound pain and suffering has been addressed. Pray that level heads will prevail in guiding authentic healing.

  • Kathleen Seabolt says:

    Launching a new school is difficult. Launching a new school within a former school in a small community in less than a year is even more daunting.
    In 100 days of operation, the Academy of Alameda opened doors to over 500 learners. The success of last night’s well attended Art Showcase included amazing student work and performances by the music program and the Oakland Youth Chorus (a new after school choice). The PTA is active and engaged, and has collaborated on increasing the home to school communication in support of school culture. Educators have created a strong network of support for each other, families and students, and leadership emerges. Hardworking Board members volunteer ridiculous hours monthly in pursuit of putting in place a team that will deliver on the promise of the charter. Many parents believe the investment in our time and faith will be well rewarded, but only through direct engagement to create positive change. Anything worthwhile is born out of struggle.

    In the future, it would be wonderful if The Island would seek to balance potentially inflammatory articles with additional perspectives, including from students and parents who seek to found the Academy of Alameda as a source of educational excellence for generations to come. Transition is hard, creating is difficult, and the easiest thing in the world is to give up when our expectations are not met. Isn’t collaboration, reflection, and perserverance what we want to model to our children?

  • Roy M Carlisle says:

    As someone who works at a think tank (TII) based in the bay area that specializes in education issues I have been watching the progress and struggle at the Academy of Alameda closely. I was pleased to see that Ms. Seabolt had the courage to speak up about this article. It would seem to me that checking sources and the bias of those sources would be a first principle of journalism. But that is certainly not the case in this article. What role did Dean Tannewitz and Sylvia Kahn actually play in the struggles of the Academy? What were the real reasons behind the struggles on the Board? Now that would have been interesting to hear about. Do you think anyone who reads this article will have a clue about those important facts? No, they won’t, because that would have required journalism that went beyond just quoting sources as if whatever they said was gospel.

    Charter schools have a very difficult challenge facing them because they live in a hybrid world between autonomy and pressure from a national public school system in trouble. Alameda as a community needs to support these courageous efforts by educators and not give credence to those who, for personal and questionable reasons, try to undermine them.

  • Jon Spangler says:

    Michele’s story presented me with new information: I was previously not aware of the Academy of Alameda’s struggles. Her sources are reliable: I know many of them and would go to them myself if I wanted to know what was going on in the schools. I commend Michele for covering this initial story well and getting the conversation started. That is her job, after all.

    I am also glad to see more information in the three previous comments and am not surprised that there is more to this story. The dialog in these comments is part and parcel of the community discussion that needs to occur so that the “profound suffering” that has most certainly occurred can be dealt with in a positive and constructive manner.

  • Greg Mauldin says:

    We chose to live in Alameda because of the schools because when looking in Oakland we realized there were no good options after elementary. We have one more you to figure out where to send our daughter to middle school and I am gravely concerned about The Academy and Wood. I just hope that this congress can do something to fix “NCLB” so that Wood Middle School has the time it needs to build upon the recent improvements.

  • Mark Irons says:

    I want to make critical comment about NCLB and Race to the Top. I don’t know if better informed sources would agree, but if the school population of the previous Chipman had been transplanted to any other school in AUSD to displace students there, it seems like the test scores and measurement of student progress would likely have stayed the same. This is to say that the test score methods of NCLB which framed Chipman teachers, methodology, leadership etc. as somehow lacking were erroneous. I understand creating the Academy as a reaction to those external mandates, but were those mandates rational, needed or helpful? My answer is no.

    I have no personal knowledge of this situation because our youngest student is now a senior but we had two kids in Paden and Wood in the era of the academies at Wood and BRAVO at Chipman. The developmental mixed aged classrooms at Paden were dissolved because of burdens created by testing requirements for NCLB. Charters are neither good nor bad in my opinion but the same effects can be had in a regular school without yanking ADA funds from the main system and everybody might be better off for it, if supposedly well meaning G W Bush, Obama, Arne Duncan et al, would kindly bug off. But too late for that at Chipman.

    Is there anybody with institutional memory to accurately access what we had in the era to which I refer, and how we lost it? It seems that funding does matter and those successful programs were starved by budget cuts and pressures from NCLB. I have nothing against charters but with limited resources it seems like we are better off if we aren’t going off in different directions and try to row one boat in one direction for the general good, with room for diversification under the umbrella of a united district.

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