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Charter schools are the most revolutionary model available

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Posted: Monday, March 15, 2010 12:00 am

Saturday, I was talking about problems with poor achievement at Lawrence School, whose students are mostly poor and poor English speakers.

Test scores there and at Sutherland School in Stockton have been so low so long that state and federal governments are requiring Lodi Unified School District to make revolutionary changes.

It's going to be a highly planned revolution, however, with as much as $2 million in federal funds available and four options, or "models," the district must choose from in order to meet the requirements placed on it. The models are Turnaround, Restart, Closure and Transformation.

"Turnaround" means firing the principal, making at least half the staff reapply for their jobs and changing the way the school is governed. We'll learn what that means if district administrators recommend this option to the Lodi Unified School District board.

"Transformation" also means firing the principal plus increasing classroom hours and "a series of required school improvement strategies." Again, we'll know the specifics if the staff recommends the Transformation route.

The option of closing Lawrence or Sutherland are not under consideration, and that's fine with me.

I'll get to the other option — charter schools — in a moment, but Assistant Superintendent Catherine Pennington said Turnaround and Transformation are most likely.

And both require the principals to be fired.

At Lawrence, the school I'm most familiar with, the idea of firing the principal is too ironic to be a joke. The principalship at Lawrence school has been a merry-go-round for a number of years.

When Rob, my oldest son, left Lawrence in 2000, Cheryl Nilmeyer was beginning a fairly long run as principal. She had a great staff, and test scores were improving. It's a story for another day why she and most of the teachers left, but I suspect that was the real beginning of the present drama at Lawrence.

The next principal lasted two years; the next two lasted a year each.

Today Linda Kopic, a "guest administrator," and Patty Cuenin, a full-time vice principal, are running the show. When I met them, they seem encouraged and focused, but Kopic is retired and will have to leave soon. Cuenin is a new administrator and may not have enough seniority to remain at Lawrence after the layoffs that are coming with LUSD's budget crisis.

"They really need strong leadership at the top," former high school principal Dutch Williams told me.

Assistant Superintendent Catherine Pennington agrees: "Establishing a consistent administrative team is part of where we're going with this."

Given the tradition of honoring seniority in the district, that's going to be a challenge, but I wish her and the board good luck.

So back to charter schools — what about them?

Pennington did not include charter schools in her top priorities.

But Williams and some others talked encouragingly about the advantages of charter schools.

Sometimes a school district sets up a charter school, like Lodi Unified did with the bilingual Joe Serna School. The district was able to negotiate an accommodation with the teacher's union to assure that only teachers with bilingual certificates are assigned there.

But when an outside organization starts a charter school, it begins without a union contract. The administration does not have to go by seniority when hiring and promoting teachers. That's a boat-rocker, but many charter schools have stable staffs and show good results, even working with disadvantaged students.

Don Shalvey, a former LUSD leader who left the district in the 1990s to pioneer charter schools, says parents who want to start a charter school have to get help from a charter school organization with a good track record.

"I would look to proven organizations and work with … school district leaders … Superintendents and school boards can develop important partnerships with parents and charter school operators to serve youth well," said Shalvey.

He is a co-founder of Aspire Pubic Schools which operates University Public School, River Oaks Charter School and Ben Holt College Preparatory Academy — three successful charter schools in LUSD.

In addition, Shalvey said parents who want to find a charter school partner might consider Lighthouse Charter in Oakland, Summit Prep in Redwood City, High Tech High in San Diego and the Alliance for College Ready Schools in Los Angeles.

Aspire Public Schools has its headquartered at 1001 22nd Avenue, Oakland, CA 94606; (510) 434-5000. Its Web site is http://www.aspirepublicschools.org">www.aspirepublicschools.org.

Parents can find more information on charter schools at http://lodinews.greatschools.org">lodinews.greatschools.org and the California Charter Schools Association, 1107 Ninth St., Suite 700, Sacramento, CA 95814; (916) 448-0995; http://www.myschool.org">www.myschool.org.

If the district is going to take advantage of the funds available now, it will have to have a plan in place by July — not nearly enough time to launch a charter school.

But down the road, parents could push for a charter school — the most revolutionary model available.

Marty Weybret is publisher of the Lodi News-Sentinel.

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