Charter schools on the rise in Alameda
Jason and Anne Buckley moved to Alameda a year ago specifically for its good public schools. They have since determined that the best educational opportunities exist for their incoming kindergartner, Stella, at local charter schools.
The couple applied at the Conservatory of Vocal and Instrumental Arts, a K-8 charter in Oakland, and are also looking at Urban Montessori, which is currently seeking a charter from the Alameda County Office of Education to open a K-2 school next year. But Anne Buckley said she’s really hopeful the family will get into Alameda’s Nea Community Learning Center, which opened in 2009.
“All of our eggs are in this basket,” Anne Buckley said.
Charters have become increasingly popular here in Alameda, and a growing number of charters – which are public schools – are drawing interest from Alameda students. Nea, for example, had 718 people who were wait listed or had recently applied for 141 open spaces at the K-12 school as of last Tuesday night, when a few dozen parents attended an informational meeting on the school (the school’s application deadline is today, February 28).
Overall, charter school students make up more than 11 percent of Alameda’s public school student population, with more than 1,100 students in charter schools here. That’s including about 550 students who enrolled at The Academy of Alameda Middle School charter that opened this year and close to 350 at Nea, which opened at 2009 and is seeking to add 100 students in 2011-2012. (The district also hosts the Alameda Community Learning Center, which is Nea’s sister school serving grades 6-12, and the Bay Area School of Enterprise, a non-traditional high school charter.)
Mandarin immersion charter Yu Ming is considering a site in Alameda and hopes to serve K-1 families across northern Alameda County when it opens in the fall (its plan is to grow into a K-8 school by 2018), while Urban Montessori, whose leaders hope to find out whether their charter is approved on March 8, have collected several local parent volunteers and are also talking to interested families here.
Parents and the schools’ leaders say the charters offer options that typically aren’t or can’t easily be provided by local school districts or in traditional public schools, without the price tag that comes with private schools.
Gloria Lee, a Yu Ming board member whose day job is as partner and entrepreneur-in-residence at the New Schools Venture Fund, said the school was undertaken by a group of families in order to provide a public Mandarin immersion option for families in Northern Alameda County that doesn’t currently exist. The charter is the first of its kind in the state.
“The kind of program we’ve talked about, the academic program is really challenging to implement,” said Lee, who said the school hopes to select a location within the next few weeks. “It’s the kind of thing a single district, (particularly a) smaller district like Alameda, doesn’t have the resources to do, especially in tough budget times.”
The new schools and increased interest also come against a backdrop of financial uncertainty for schools in Alameda – which have seen $7.2 million in budget cuts this year and could face millions more in cuts next year – and across the state, though the charters are publicly funded and also susceptible to state budget woes.
“I would like to think people are totally interested because we have two great schools,” said Paul Bentz, chief executive officer of Community Learning Centers Inc., which operates Nea and its sister school, Alameda Community Learning Center. “I think there’s also a lot of fear about what’s going to happen (with the public schools) here.”
Parents paid rapt attention Tuesday night as Nea’s lead facilitator, Maafi Gueye, introduced the school’s teachers and programs. The school offers project-based learning and a wealth of citizenship opportunities, plus teacher-driven electives that include origami, digital music production and languages; it also offers a full PTA-funded music program, while carts full of Mac laptops paid for by state-supplied startup funds travel from classroom to classroom.
This year, the school kept its student-teacher ratio in kindergarten through third grades at 20 students per teacher (though that will rise to between 22 and 24 students per teacher next year, Gueye said), and also maintained a 180-day school year; Alameda Unified’s traditional public schools lost five school days to budget cuts and saw K-3 class sizes increase to 25 students per teacher, a number that could rise to 32 students per teacher next year if additional funds don’t become available.
Luanda Wesley, who teaches the school’s full-day kindergarten, told families she values the flexibility the charter provides her, something she didn’t have in the years she taught at traditional public schools. “With the district, you can only go so far out of the box, and they ding you,” Wesley said. The school doesn’t send homework home until the sixth grade.
But Gueye said that flexibility doesn’t impede the school’s emphasis on basics, and that she’s got the test results to provide it: In its first year, Nea posted a schoolwide Academic Performance Index score of 839. The state’s standard of success is 800.
The Buckleys said they like the alternatives offered by charter schools including Nea. They said their neighborhood elementary school, Otis, is their “safety school.”
“I like the model of this school far better,” Anne Buckley said.