Charter improving after rocky start
Parents say things are improving at The Academy of Alameda Middle School, the charter school that opened in the place of Chipman Middle School this year. The school’s troubles were featured in a pair of stories on The Island in January.
The school’s board has hired a new executive director with several years of administrative experience, and parents are rallying around the school, showing up in growing numbers to help out with lunch duty and field trips, and becoming active with the school’s PTA.
“For the first time, they have more parents on field trips than they can accommodate,” said Christine Strena, a parent who has been working to improve the school’s communication with families.
Allyson Tilles, a member of the school’s governing board, said the school’s leaders and families are operating off a growing understanding of what it takes to run a charter school and of the things that make it different from a traditional public school.
“It’s a ship that everybody has to help sail,” Tilles said.
Tilles said two-thirds of the school’s students had attended Chipman the year earlier, and that many had initially resisted the change. But she said students are getting used to their new school, too.
Parents who The Island spoke to in December and January said the school suffered from chaotic classrooms and that its leaders failed to communicate with parents about safety and other issues, and that they school was also ill-prepared to handle what school leaders said was an influx of unexpected special education students. Some parents said they pulled their children from the school over the troubles.
The school was formed as a replacement for Chipman, which the district was forced to consider restaffing, closing or chartering when the school was unable to meet federal testing goals for four years in a row.
But Strena said the school has taken steps to address the problems, offering a mentoring program for younger teachers, changing the way special education is handled and enhancing outreach to parents. The Academy’s website includes an April 7 notice regarding police cars in front of the school; parents had said they weren’t notified about similar incidents in the past.
The school also hired a new executive director, Matt Huxley, who starts July 1. Huxley, who now serves as principal of Mill Valley Middle School and also worked as vice principal of Berkeley High School, said he’s excited about the flexibility a charter school will provide him and about working with the Academy’s diverse student body. At a meeting with prospective parents last week, he said he would work to attract and retain good teachers at the school, boost technology resources and engage the school’s families, an effort that would include boosting the electives the school offers. Teachers who attended the meeting nodded in agreement as he spoke.
“My lens is, ‘Would I want my daughter in her class or his class?'” Huxley, a father of three, told teachers. “Would I want her in this school?”
Dean Tannewitz, the school’s founding director, resigned after less than three months on the job. Neither she nor Lori MacDonald, the school’s academic director, had experience running a school before they were hired to their Academy posts.
Former Alameda High principal Mike Janvier is providing operations support through the end of this year, Tilles said; she said the school’s leaders expect to hire a permanent operations person with financial experience to support Huxley next year.
MacDonald, who has been running the school since Tannewitz left in late November, told parents attending an information night last week that the school will be changing its schedule next year to include more language arts and math. The school operates on a drop schedule with different classes at different times each day.
MacDonald also said the school would be simplifying its uniform policy, something it had struggled to enforce this year.
Tilles said the school is changing the way it works with its special education students too, a change she credited MacDonald with making.
Teachers said they’ve come together as a group over the course of the school’s inaugural year and that they and the school have provided fun opportunities like games and assemblies to engage students. They’re now in the midst of planning activities for the end of the school year in June.
Seventh grade math teacher Lorna Williams said the school has seen plenty of bumps in its first year, but teachers’ energy and enthusiasm for the school is prevailing.
“I would say that the school culture has come together considerably since the beginning of the year,” Williams said.