A few years ago, a class of fifth-graders sat down with Elk Grove Unified School District administrators and negotiated a $2 million deal.
The kids, students at , wanted a running track for their school. The state was giving out grants for physical education, but state law prevented using the money for tracks.
As part of a civic education unit designed by their teacher, Jim Bentley, the students spent weeks researching a way around their dilemma—talking to legislators to understand the law, then drafting an alternate funding proposal for school district officials. The result: The district, impressed by the students’ presentation, used bond money to speed up track installation at Foulks and 13 other schools.
“That’s the kind of thing I want kids to be engaged in—not just learning content standards and taking a test, but using their knowledge in a meaningful way,” Bentley said of the exercise.
Giving teachers the freedom to take on creative projects like the track campaign is part of the motivation behind a new charter school being proposed for Elk Grove. Called The Grove Leadership Academy, the school would focus on community service and leadership training and ask parents to volunteer 40 hours of their time each year. The concept is already drawing support from parents disgruntled with changes in Elk Grove Unified and district teachers looking for a new challenge.
If approved, the school would be only the second independent charter school to take root in Elk Grove. It’s the brainchild of city councilmember Gary Davis, an education reform advocate whose day job is lobbying for the non-profit EdVoice.
“Our objective is to teach service-based leadership to kids in a small learning environment that is academically rigorous,” said Davis.
State law grants local school district and county education boards the authority to approve or deny plans for charter schools, which receive public funds but operate independently of school districts.
Davis, Bentley and a group of about 25 parents and teachers have been meeting since January to draft a charter for the school, and say they aim to submit their petition to Elk Grove Unified this summer. The school would launch with a K-8 program in the fall of 2012, expanding to a high school the following year. Supporters say they are looking at several Laguna-area locations, including the old Guaranty Bank site off Harbor Point Drive.
The effort got a boost earlier this spring, when parents frustrated at for middle and high schools began showing up at meetings.
“This is not a knee-jerk reaction to the boundary discussion,” said Liz Gaitan, a parent of two students at Joseph Sims Elementary School who has been working on the charter school bid. “It is a school to serve greater Elk Grove. But you have a lot of passionate people at the table because of the boundary thing.”
While nationally, controversy has swirled around charter schools, the drive to establish one in Elk Grove is in many ways different from efforts in other parts of the country.
Unlike the desperate low-income parents depicted in documentaries like Waiting for 'Superman,' who see the local public schools as failing their kids, many of the parents rallying behind The Grove Leadership Academy so far come from the relatively affluent Laguna West neighborhood, ground zero of the boundary debate. And both they and the teachers involved say they are pleased with the quality of public education in Elk Grove; they simply want another option.
“This is my 32nd year teaching in Elk Grove, and I’m very happy with all my experience as an educator here,” said Geri Keskeys, a popular teacher at Joseph Sims who is heading up development of the school’s curriculum.
Keskeys said Elk Grove Unified poured funds into staff development in the 1980s, giving her and other teachers access to a wide variety of educational techniques and theories. But in recent years, she said, fads in curriculum and a decrease in resources have restricted teachers’ ability to apply best practices in areas like reading and math.
Keskeys gets most excited about a curriculum called Core Knowledge, which would be a key component of the new charter school. Developed by educator E.D. Hirsch, the approach emphasizes reading from classic works of literature and circling back to the same themes over time. Students start learning what a magnet is, for example, in kindergarten, then go on to study magnetic fields in fourth grade and by seventh grade are building their own electromagnets.
On a recent weekday, Keskeys led a group of parents and community members on a tour of Rocklin Academy, a nearby charter school that uses the Core Knowledge curriculum.
In one sixth-grade classroom, green pouches on the back of each chair held anthologies of poems and short stories. Students were learning about the Industrial Revolution by acting out roles of factory owners, workers and orphans. Tyler Allen, 12, tasked with deciding whether to take over his deceased brother’s coal mine if it meant he had to care for his widow, pondered the dilemma for a few seconds.
“I’ll take her,” he announced, prompting whistles from the class.
“It was a very relaxed environment, and kids learn in a relaxed environment,” Elk Grove parent Kurt Beardwood said of the visit. “It was nice to see the teacher not looking so frazzled.”
Why not create that kind of environment in an existing Elk Grove school?
Bentley says he’s tried to get other teachers at his school interested in doing hands-on community activism projects with their kids, but it’s been a hard sell.
“To get teachers to walk away from a curriculum that’s been adopted takes a big leap of faith and support,” he said. “It takes a real culture that says it’s OK to do this, and we want you to try it.”
Rocklin Academy teachers meet regularly to plan lessons, including two paid afternoons per month when students have a minimum day. But there’s one tool they don’t have, one that’s been a sore spot in the debate over charter schools: union representation.
Only about 30 percent of the over 900 charter schools in California operate under a collective bargaining contract, according to the California Charter Schools Association.
“One of our biggest concerns about charters is burnout,” said Tom Gardner, president of the Elk Grove Education Association, which represents teachers in Elk Grove Unified. Gardner pointed to a recent 60 Minutes story on a non-union charter school in New York that paid salaries of $125,000 per year to attract top teachers—but expected them to work 90-hour weeks.
Gardner said a lack of job security can also undercut one of the main goals of charter school proponents: innovation. “You don’t want to have a situation where someone is a great teacher and has strong opinions about what they should teach, then gets fired because they don’t get along with the administration,” he said.
Charter school proponents said teachers at the new school would choose for themselves whether to have a union once the school is established.
Both Gardner and district superintendent Steven Ladd said they’d wait to see a detailed proposal for the charter school before making up their minds about whether it would be a good fit for Elk Grove.
Ladd, who met with the Grove Leadership Academy team last week to hear their vision for the school, weighed in earlier this year against a plan by education reformer Margaret Fortune to establish a chain of charter schools in the Sacramento area. Elk Grove Unified opposed that effort because it would have replicated programs already offered by the district, Ladd said.
“We want to make sure people understand we still believe we’re offering quality education for our kids,” he said.