Acton Agua Dulce School District Officials Look To Charter Choice, Part I
Ed. note: The Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District approved a charter school petition for an elementary school and a high school outside of its boundaries. This series of stories looks at what brought the district to that decision, and the response of parents, educators and administrators in the Santa Clarita Valley. Part I looks at the problems facing the Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District that prompted school officials to look at the charter school option.
A topic that may be pitting school districts against each other and, in many respects, is creating a clear divide in the Santa Clarita Valley, charter schools, is changing the fundamental approach for one local superintendent.
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Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District Superintendent Brent Woodard said he has been assailed from all sides while trying to meet the demand for a contingent of parents and children he’s looking to serve with his new model.
Some call the charter school proponents a “vocal minority.” Others point to a pernicious cycle -- declining enrollments equal less funding, ergo fewer programs and then fewer students still.
But for Woodard, the problem seems clear: The financial model for public education is broken and in need of a drastic fix.
The answer became clear when he heard from hundreds of parents in the runup to his district’s approval of the Einstein Academy charter school petition.
“I think the changing landscape across the United States is the school choice option,” Woodard said.
“If public schools are meeting that demand, then why do you have thousands of parents applying to the (Albert Einstein Academy for the Letters, Arts and Science). They want something different that public schools can’t provide. And that includes my own schools.”
As someone with three decades of experience in public schools, most of that time in Southern California school districts, Woodard said he didn’t come to the conclusion quickly or easily.
He’s also met with ardent opposition from his peers, who feel as though he’s “selling out” other districts.
However, after bond Measure CF passed in 2008 by the narrowest of margins, which would have infused the district with up to $13 million in voter-approved bonds to achieve $9 million in state matching funds, Woodard and some of the AADUSD school board members felt it was California that sold out Acton and Agua Dulce schools.
“They took away our matching funds,” said board member Ed Porter, who was a voice in favor of the 3-2 vote to allow Einstein Academy to charter an elementary school in the Santa Clarita Valley and a high school in the San Fernando Valley.
When AADUSD members sought the funding they thought was guaranteed by the state, they were told it was no longer in the budget, making it impossible to build a new high school.
The charter school wasn’t the first option for local officials, said Ken Pfalzgraf, 53, of Acton, a parent of two children in the local district.
“What I’ve seen is a number of things being thrown at the wall to see if they stick,” said Pfalzgraf, who said he’s been to every AADUSD board meeting in the last two and a half years and supports the Einstein approval.
He also understands that there’s two sides to a coin.
“There’s questions about the capability of the current (AADUSD) administration,” Pfalzgraf said. “Why is there a superintendent and why is there a director of education, if we’re reaching out to (AELAS executive director) Jeffrey Shapiro?” he asks rhetorically.
Even though he understands where Saugus Union and Castaic Union school district officials are coming from, he makes no bones about what his concerns are.
“I have no loyalty to the administrative sector,” Pfalzgraf said. “I have a loyalty to the success of the kids in our schools.”
In that respect, Woodard has acknowledged an issue.
But the remedies are not easy to come by, and the funding that’s required to address the issues is in a continually shrinking supply, Woodard said.
Just in the last three years, the district has seen its number of students at Vasquez High School shrink from 400 in 2009-10 to 316 in 2011-2012, according to the state’s Department of Education website.
Districtwide, the reduction from 1,677 enrollments in 2008-09 to about 1,406 in 2011-12 has meant a loss of $1.9 million in state funding, even though the per student money has increased in that time span from $8,129 to $8,345.
Even among parents who have tried their best to support the district, there is a divide on the topic of where the problem is, and how it should be addressed.
Charlene Klein, former vice president of the Vasquez High School Parent Teacher Student Organization, who helped run the campaign for Measure CF from her Acton living room, had two daughters graduate from Vasquez High.
AADUSD’s only high school has issues, but she didn’t have any problems with the elementary school system, which she felt would be negatively impacted by opening a new charter.
“It’s unfortunate -- I think they have it misguided,” Klein said. “They need to a charter for the high school, not the elementary. The K-8 program doesn’t have any issues.”
The small-town, rural environment, which is part of why many people leave Santa Clarita for the Acton and Agua Dulce area, can provide for a great education, the 30-plus-year Acton resident said.
But it can also be limiting for high school students, when you have too few dollars to offer career-training education, such as the neighboring Hart district’s regional occupation program, Pfalzgraf said.
“With a small school, (a small student population) can be the next best thing,” Klein said. “But with the loss of (funding), your opportunities change.”
In exchange for chartering the two schools, Einstein officials will be building a “dependent charter school model” on all four of the AADUSD schools, Woodard said.
They would function differently than the two independent schools in the charter, Woodard said, with the specifics still in the works.
“There’s quite a few folks who just want to bury their head in the sand,” Woodard said. “The fact is, we’re not meeting the needs of our kids, so what are we going to do about it?”
Part II, which will run next Wednesday, will look at the fixes that Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District officials are trying to bridge their funding gap.
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