Acton Agua Dulce School District Officials Look To Charter Choice, Part III
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 looked at the problems facing the Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District that prompted school officials to look at the charter school option. Part II looked at the solution. Part III looks at the reaction of the education community.
In May, Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District governing board members approved a charter school petition for Einstein Academy, knowing the location was not intended for their district’s boundaries.
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“It’s clearly stipulated in the (AADUSD) petition that it was going to go in the Saugus (Union School District) boundaries,” said Debbie Rocha, former AADUSD governing board member.
Rocha was on the board in May when AADUSD board members voted 3-2 to approve the Albert Einstein Academy for the Letters, Arts and Sciences.
No address was given for the school at the hearing, nor is one listed in the charter school’s petition; however, Jeffrey Shapiro, executive director for Einstein Academy, notified SUSD officials May 16 -- the night before the charter was set to be voted on -- that he would be opening a school in their boundaries.
It was later discovered by KHTS, by looking at public records, that Einstein officials titled a Rye Canyon Road location for the elementary school Feb. 20. However, the address, 25300 Rye Canyon Road, sits squarely within Castaic Union School District boundaries.
Castaic Union Superintendent Jim Gibson contested the charter, which has been challenged by all five Santa Clarita Valley superintendents from the get go, to the Los Angeles County Office of Education.
There are several charter schools in the Santa Clarita Valley. Never before has a charter school caused so much reaction from all five school district superintendents in the Santa Clarita Valley.
And even Hart district school officials, who granted approval for a seventh to 12th grade Einstein Academy location, are now questioning the charter school’s modus operandi based on the AADUSD petition.
“The Hart School District has enjoyed a very good relationship with the leadership at Einstein Academy since approving the original charter to open their first school in 2010,” according to a statement from Gail Pinsker, spokeswoman for the William S. Hart Union High School District. “We have been disappointed with their lack of communication and transparency in their plans to open another secondary school in the SCV chartered by a neighboring district. Einstein officials have not been forthcoming with their plans regarding the new school as outlined in the documents submitted to the city of Santa Clarita and California Department of Education.”
Shapiro repeatedly has said there are hundreds of students on Einstein’s waiting list, which would be enough to justify another location.
However, he’s also said the Einstein doesn’t intend to open an additional seventh to 12th grade school in the Santa Clarita Valley, despite the fact that Einstein officials applied for County School District numbers for a K-12 site on Rye Canyon Road.
The intent of Einstein Academy officials has been questionable since 2010, according to Newhall School District Superintendent Marc Winger.
Winger consistently has opposed charter schools in the Santa Clarita Valley since Einstein officials approached the Newhall School District in 2010.
“The Newhall School District rejected a petition from the proponents of the AEA in 2010,” Winger said. "Charter schools are public schools. It’s apparent that AEA is establishing boutique, exclusionary schools that operate more like private schools than public schools. They do not represent the student population of the SCV at large, they face none of the challenges we face to educate poor and English-learning students."
Winger also said Einstein Academy’s plan is in contradiction with the intent of charter schools which, according to state law, are intended to support low-performing and underachieving districts, such as the ones that often exist in inner-city environments.
“At the time, their petition was error-ridden, incomplete and sloppy,” Winger said. “It had serious flaws in the finance section. They showed no inclination or ability to address the primary intent of the charter law -– to meet the needs of low-achieving students.”
Such an atmosphere does not exist in the Santa Clarita Valley, Winger said, with districts that consistently achieve high scores across the board.
Shapiro countered with the claim that he is simply meeting parent demand, which was part of the reasoning given by AADUSD officials. Shapiro has argued that if there is no need, then why would there be such a demand for the Einstein Academy model.
"What we're doing is that we're meeting the needs and the demands of parents in Santa Clarita," Shapiro said. "If there wasn't the need and the demand for Einstein Academy then we wouldn't have had over 2,500 families already apply."
Shapiro joined the effort to work for Einstein Academy in May 2012.
Winger's reasoning was re-affirmed by two county officials at a recent LACOE meeting, despite county education officials voting 3-2 to overturn SUSD officials’ fourth rejection of an Einstein Academy charter petition. The motion didn’t carry because a majority of the board’s seven members needed to vote in favor of the move.
“(The Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District board)'s approval decision was the result of a slimy tactic that disrespects the concept of local governance,” Winger said. “Three Santa Clarita Valley school districts said 'no' to this organization, and they found a loophole in the law that they could exploit.”
The charter school’s plans have also divided Acton and Agua Dulce officials.
Rocha left the board in June. She said the charter school petition wasn’t the reason -- she was leaving the board to focus on her nonprofit Straightening Reins, which is up for an SCV Leadership award for nonprofits.
“We don’t see eye-to-eye,” Rocha said of herself, and those who voted for the charter’s approval. “I don’t think (the charter) was the way to go, so I thought, ‘You know what, this is the perfect time.’ I just need to spend my time and energy here at the foundation.”
Rocha, who’s also the teachers union representative for SUSD, said ultimately, she just couldn’t approve of what the board was trying to do.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to put a charter school in someone else’s boundaries just to get money -- that’s the bottom line of what they did and I didn’t agree with that,” Rocha said.
AADUSD board member Larry Layton also saw it as a money grab, and it was one he didn’t support.
Layton, a lawyer who operates a law school in Acton and also voted against the move -- but remains on the board -- openly chastised board members in favor of the plan, reminding them of the “Golden Rule,” when it comes to dealing with other districts and their enrollments.
AADUSD board member Ed Porter said his bottom line was that he was responding to the needs of his parents with the Einstein approval.
However, Tim Jorgenson, Vasquez High’s athletic director, physical education intstructor, head football coach and teachers union representative, said board members should focus on solutions that respond to the needs of the students, not the parents.
A critic of the Einstein Academy charter petition, Jorgensen, a 13-year teacher, said the issue that Vasquez High had was with facilities, not with programming.
“We’re not in support of the charter,” Jorgensen said. “We don’t think that the district has responded to all of the remedies available in the community for programs and facilities, primarily with the building of the high school.
“Are theres ways we can improve? Absolutley,” Jorgenson said. “This is where the staff got frustrated. We don’t need to build classrooms. We don’t need to build an administration building.”
The plan to build a $13 million high school didn’t address the real needs, which is why kids were leaving, Jorgensen said.
Advocating for a multipurpose facility, Jorgensen said teachers had spoken up in favor of an auditorium that could also be a gym, which would truly serve the needs of the students, he said.
That should be their goals as teachers and administrators, and it would improve students retention, he said.
“(AADUSD teachers) don’t think that Albert Einstein is going to be the resolution to the program need,” Jorgensen said.
“Is Albert Einstein going to build the facilities? That (MPR) facility in and of itself would bring back 30-60 students,” adding that it would be a place where students could play basketball and hold dances or serve community need.
The school board is now looking at that direction, Jorgensen said, but board members “had gotten off the mark a little bit,” with the Einstein plan.
“We need to do what’s in the best interest in the students -- not the parents. Sometimes, there are things that are in the best interests of the students and not the parents, not the teachers, not the administrators,” he said. “We’re in the business of educating students, not in the education business.”
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