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Saving our Schools?

With the California public school system in turmoil, parents and teachers are turning to charter schools to try to improve education for their kids. It’s a contentious battle—and it’s coming to a neighborhood near you.


Illustration by Jon Krause

Pat Middendorf, a teacher at Clayton Valley High, couldn’t bear to sit on the sidelines and watch her school’s continued downward slide.


Budgets were being slashed, student test scores were dismal, and behavior problems were rampant. The worst example of the problems went viral in 2009, when a student posted a shocking YouTube video of the chaotic scene in a math class. In the video, out-of-control students throw paper balls and shout while the cowed teacher hides in the back of the room.

Calls for help met a lack of response from officials of the well-meaning but overwhelmed Mt. Diablo Unified School District.

“We were at a very low level,” says Middendorf. “It just seemed like we were spinning our wheels. We just really felt defeated all the time.”

Rather than give up on the school and look for a new job, as other teachers had done, Middendorf, who is known for her never-say-die attitude, invited teachers, parents, and city officials to her home last March to discuss the problems.

The group eventually decided the best solution for saving Clayton Valley High was to petition to become a charter school. That way, a board of parents and teachers would take over and run the high school in the hopes of improving the culture and education at the 1,800-student institution. Eighty percent of teachers welcomed the idea of being able to respond directly and immediately to issues and signed the charter petition.

“People aren’t satisfied anymore with this top-down management,” says Middendorf. “[At] companies like Apple and Genentech, it’s all shared decision making. And that’s what the schools have to adjust to.”

By petitioning for a charter, the proponents set themselves up for a battle royal with Mt. Diablo Unified School District. They also joined the growing number of California charter schools. Of the 7,000 schools in the Golden State, 982 are charters, 100 of which opened in the past year.

Charter schools are public schools funded by the state—so they are free of charge to students. But they are run independently from their school districts. As a result, supporters argue, innovation and flexibility to meet a community’s needs can be the rule rather than the exception.

Some, like Livermore Valley Charter Preparatory, are general education schools just like traditional public schools. Others specialize in arts, like Oakland Arts School, or in immersion language programs, such as the Chinese language Yu Ming Charter School in Oakland. At others, like the San Francisco Flex Academy, students sit together in a room but learn individually in virtual classes via computers while teachers roam with an eye for those in need of help. A Flex school for grades six to twelve is still looking for space but plans to open in Walnut Creek in September.

Initially, the charter movement began as a way to fix troubled urban schools, but the movement is expanding into the burbs. Charter schools have recently opened in Napa, Saratoga, and Sausalito, to name a few cities. Proponents in Dublin and Livermore are petitioning for additional charter schools.

“There is this upmarket drift of schools,” says Margaret Raymond, Ph.D., director of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. “The message of choice is starting to infiltrate into some of the more advantaged communities.”

Raymond believes that the charter movement can help students, both at charter schools and at district-run institutions. “You want to think that by introducing choice you might be stimulating a bit of competitive response from the local traditional provider,” she says, adding that charters, like regular public schools, must be policed, and ones that aren’t working must be fixed.

“If you do those things, I think the opportunity for choice actually sets you on a long-term path of improving education outcomes for all kids.”

Not everyone is as excited about charters, however. Charters aren’t always successful, and they don’t always improve test scores. While several education think tanks are studying charters, the results so far appear to be mixed.

“I just don’t feel that charters overall have proven that they’re the magic bullet,” says Contra Costa County Board of Education vice president Richard Asadoorian. A former teacher and high school principal in Fresno, he saw charters open—and sometimes close due to mismanagement.

Locally, the Livermore Valley Charter School, founded in 2005, has seen its API test scores go up 35 points over the past three years. Those at Eagle Peak Montessori, which opened in Walnut Creek in 2001 and serves grades first through fifth, have gone up 54 points in the same amount of time.

Perhaps the most vocal opponents of charters are school district officials, who make up the first board that approves or denies a petition. Of course, no board wants one of its schools to secede. But the real stickler comes down to money. Because of complicated state funding formulas, districts lose money when a school becomes a charter. That can hurt the remaining schools—and the other students—in the district.

“As long as you’ve got agencies that would be approving a competitor, it’s almost impossible to eliminate that conflict,” says Bill Batchelor, chief operating officer of Tri-Valley Learning Corporation, which runs two charter schools in Livermore. Both schools have stellar test scores, and one has a waiting list of 800 students. The group is applying for two more charters in the area.

“It’s a challenge for the petitioners, and it’s a challenge for the boards,” Batchelor says.

Gary Eberhart voted against the effort to make Clayton Valley High a charter school. Like Middendorf, he is intimately aware of the troubles at the school: His daughter graduated from there last year. Eberhart is also a member—and until January was president—of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District’s Board of Education.

“I knew there were problems. I sat in the room with the charter organizers when they first came to the district, and said I agree with you; I agree something needs to be done,” Eberhart says. “But I don’t believe a charter is the right move.” Instead, he says, parents should have become more involved in governing the district themselves and lobbied the state for more money to solve the problems.

He blames both a lack of funding and the complexity of running a 36,000-student system for the district’s handling—or lack of handling—of the problems at Clayton Valley High. Because of state budget cuts, Eberhart says, the district had to cut administrative positions and simply didn’t have the manpower to address individual schools’ problems.

“It’s like a Rubik’s cube,” Eberhart says. “When the district solves a problem, it has to solve all six sides. That’s the difference between a school district and a charter school. The district has to make sure all the kids are taken care of, that by doing a they don’t inadvertently do b and screw something else up.”

Middendorf says this is exactly why she and her co-petitioner, Neil McChesney, proposed the charter. “Now you have the students, the parents, and the community working on this problem together,” she says. “We have no more blame anymore. We’re the buck-stops-here people now.”

Not surprisingly, the hearings before the Mt. Diablo Board and the Contra Costa Board of Education on the Clayton Valley charter petition were ugly. For every pro-charter parent, teacher, and student who lobbied passionately for the charter plan, opponents assailed it. Some opponents—principals and students from Clayton Valley’s sister high schools in the district—decried the unfairness of a system that could take money out of the district, potentially cutting classes at their schools. Given the level of anger at the hearings, one Clayton Valley mom worried about what would happen when students from two sides met at, say, a basketball game. Would they remain civil after such a heated hearing? A single police officer watched for trouble from the back of the room.

Other charter groups have met similar resistance.

In April 2010, the charter petition for the aforementioned Flex Academy currently looking for space in Walnut Creek was denied by the Mt. Diablo Unified School District. It was a relatively civil meeting, following the district’s issuing a memo, stating the charter had an unrealistic financial plan and an unsound educational program. The petition was approved later by the County Board of Education.

In Dublin and Livermore, things got uglier. The Tri-Valley Learning Corporation recently had its petitions for two separate charter schools denied by the district, with appeals pending for both. At one hearing, parents from local schools lined up to speak out against the charter, fearing its financial impact on the district. Online, bloggers on both sides of the issue went to war.

As for Clayton Valley, the Mt. Diablo Board voted down the charter petition in November, and the proponents appealed to the county board. In early January, after three hours of comments, the county board unanimously approved the charter, making Clayton Valley the third (and by far the biggest) Northern California charter conversion high school and the first in Contra Costa County.

“Approval is the default position, unless you can give specifics about why the charter will not succeed,” explains Cynthia Ruehlig, president of the Contra Costa County Board of Education.

Now, Middendorf and the charter proponents have a lot of work to do before the conversion this fall. A nationwide search for an executive director to guide the school has already begun. A website (claytonvalley.org) to keep the community informed every step of the way is rolling. And charter organizers are forming committees with parents, staff, students, and other community members to advise the school’s board on everything from curriculum to operations, school calendars to staff evaluation procedures. (Clayton Valley Charter will keep its teachers union in place, but the new on-site administration will have more leeway to manage and mentor teachers.)

Ask her how she’ll know if the charter is successful, and Middendorf replies in a voice that seems to shed the strain of months of battle, leaving behind a sense of hope.

“It really comes down to one thing: It’s the pulse of the campus,” she says. “I think what you’re going to see are students who feel someone is paying attention to them, and staff who feel they’re part of the big picture, part of the community. A positive culture breeds a pulse in the school that is going to vibrate in the hallways.

“People keep saying it’s pie in the sky. But I firmly believe it can happen. I wouldn’t have gotten involved in this if I didn’t think so.”



Charter Roundup

The charter school movement continues to expand. According to the California Charter School Association, there are now nine charters in Contra Costa County and more than 40 in Alameda County. We collected a sampling of the schools already opened and the ones to come.


Eagle Peak Montessori

Walnut Creek

Students: 185 in grades 1–5.
Charter: Elementary school in a Montessori environment.
Scores: 2010 base API of 891.

Livermore Valley Charter School


Students: 932 in grades K–8.
Charter: Traditional learning environment.
Scores: 2010 base API of 900.

Livermore Valley Charter Preparatory


Students: 70 in grades 9–12.
Charter: Traditional learning environment.
Scores: Unavailable, as school recently opened.

Oakland School for the Arts


Students: 599 in grades 6–12.
Charter: Focus on students with interests in performing and fine arts.
Scores: 2010 base API of 756.

Yu Ming Charter School


Students: 105 in grades K–8. (currently kindergarten and first grades).
Charter: Mandarin Chinese language immersion program.
Scores: Unavailable, as school recently opened.

Future Openings

Clayton Valley Charter High


Students: Currently a regular school with 1,886 students in grades 9–12.
Charter: Traditional learning environment charter conversion.
Opening: Fall 2012.

Mt. Diablo Flex Academy

Walnut Creek

Students: Grades 9–12.
Charter: Students learn online in a classroom, with teachers available for support.
Opening: Fall 2012.


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