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Principal Tompkins on "Why Charter?"

posted Mar 7, 2016, 4:01 PM by Jason Davis   [ updated Oct 10, 2016, 8:21 PM by Laura Sireci Roman ]
Why Charter?
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve visited with a number of curious community and staff members regarding the potential transition of McKenzie Schools to a Charter School. Each person I talked to drove home how much this community values and loves their students, their school and its staff. Most of them ask “Why charter, why now?” Over the next few years, due to circumstances beyond the district’s control, current trends are showing that McKenzie Schools will be facing major transition. We can choose to embrace this reality, work to investigate the best options available to make McKenzie better suited to weather these changes and better meet the needs of our students given these transitions, or we can continue to hope for things to get better, cross our fingers and continue to do the best we can do. I'd like to devote this week's edition of “From Principal Tompkins' Desk” to sharing a bit about Charter Schools, why we're investigating a transition to Charter and what the Charter development process looks like.

You might be wondering what are the circumstances beyond our control? Two words: housing and employment. I found it fitting that the River Reflections article that raised many of your questions shared the front page with Jim Bakers’ well written article about the limitations that a lack of sewage treatment has put on the development of Blue River. Since the decline of the timber industry in the 1980s, McKenzie has seen a decline in jobs and affordable housing. With the loss of many family wage jobs and the reduction of affordable places to raise a family, there have been fewer students attending McKenzie Schools. Since 1990 to today, McKenzie Schools has 233 fewer students enrolled[1].  Each student lost means less funding, and as a result of this enrollment decline, we’ve seen a decrease in the educational offerings we can afford. In recent years this has resulted in blended elementary classrooms and reduced elective options in the middle and high schools. Today, things are not as dark as during the recent recession, but once again due to declining enrollment, some of the gains in options we’ve been able to secure in the past two years may be lost to budget cuts next year. This year alone McKenzie is down about 30 students, this equates to nearly a quarter million dollar difference in funding between the current year and next. Because we cannot change the things beyond our control, like employment and affordable housing, we must look to the things we can. Realistically as a school, the one thing we do have the ability to control is the education we provide our students. Currently, our dedicated and talented staff can only teach the core content required by state law.  Supplemental courses such as visual arts or those offering career specific skills are thin. These “extras” provide avenues for students to be successful while reinforcing the skills they gain in their core math, reading, science and social studies classes. Due to state licensing requirements, even if current staff were interested in, and were capable to teach one or more of these courses, they are unable to do so unless they possess the proper endorsement.

How could Charter put us in a better position to control our situation? In looking at what a charter could do for McKenzie a few things come to mind. First, the act of taking the time to create a charter proposal, including the creation of a new coherent K-12 educational programming model, has the potential to positively impact the classroom. Second, by creating a dynamic program that best reaches the needs of our students and community, we may attract others to take part in what we’re doing. Because charter schools are schools of choice, students from other districts would be able to enroll as well. These additional students could potentially grow our educational opportunities. Third, transitioning to charter would allow greater flexibility in building a unique program by allowing us to tap into existing staff in new ways, or community experts who may be interested in sharing their knowledge.  This would serve to create an even more impactful curriculum and learning environment for our current and future McKenzie students, which is always our main goal as an educational entity. Charter schools are required to have a minimum of 50% of teaching staff hold a traditional teaching license and all core subject area courses must be taught by a licensed teacher. The remaining staff can be “registered” teachers meaning that they have a background in their content area but may not have gotten a degree in teaching. An example could be a local certified mechanic could, in partnership with the school, apply to be a registered teacher through Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission and teach an Introduction to Auto Maintenance course.

Does this mean if we go charter we’ll layoff the current staff and hire “registered” teachers? Absolutely not! As I mentioned before, we are pretty much at bare bones capacity with what we offer. The vast majority of staff teaches solely what is considered core subject matter; and in all honesty we could not run a state supported public school without them. Any potential reductions would not be precipitated by a transition to charter; on the contrary investigating its potential should be seen as a way to head off and potentially grow what is currently offered by those teachers. It would be irresponsible and not in good faith to replace current highly qualified staff with charter registered teachers regardless of the content. Lastly, a transition to charter would qualify us for new avenues of financial support such as charter school grants, and other grants available to non-profits. Currently, the Oregon Department of Education is offering $100,000 planning grants, which allow approved charter schools to fine tune their programming before opening their doors. ODE is also awarding implementation grants of up to $450,000 for operating charters to purchase supplies, equipment and training to further put in place their educational program. This additional funding could not be used for staff as per Federal rules but could go a long way in getting what we need to make our McKenzie focused program operational.

What would a Charter School look like? A Charter School is a public school that is operated under an agreement or “charter” between a non-profit group and the school district. Usually a committee of teachers, parents, support staff and community stakeholders craft a proposal that is presented to the school district. This proposal is quite comprehensive and encompasses all aspects of the school including curriculum, programming, assessment and accountability. The proposal’s goals should work to increase student learning and achievement, create more choices and options, meet students’ individual needs, grow educator and parent/community relationships, incorporate innovative learning methods, create flexible learning environments, provide new professional opportunities for staff, ensure accountability for student learning and use innovative measurement of student learning and growth. If that proposal is approved, the committee and board negotiate the charter agreement. In our case, a committee of teachers, parents, support staff and community members will be meeting soon to begin the process of drafting a charter proposal and create a non-profit to operate the charter school. If the proposal is approved, the committee and board will negotiate the school’s charter agreement. Most of the time in schools in our position (rural, one school districts i.e. one elementary, one middle, one high) the non-profit would contract back to the school district for the building, staffing, transportation, etc. In other words, classes will be held in the same buildings, taught by the same skilled teachers, transported in the same buses by the same caring drivers and supported by the same dedicated classified staff as we currently have. As the district would be the employer, the right of the staff to collectively bargain and negotiate their contracts with their respective Unions would not change. Staff would still be considered public state employees. The biggest difference in how we currently operate would be the creation of a charter school board that would be charged with operating the school. This would be another avenue for parents, staff and community members to have a say in their school. This board would be independent of the district board for operation purposes, but a key for any successful charter school is having a good working relationship with their district board.

So what if this doesn’t work, what if we try it and after a few years we don’t get the results we wanted? We can gracefully walk away. If the community and district don’t feel that the charter school is working at the end of the charter agreement, we can file paperwork with ODE to close the charter school and resume operations as a traditional school. Supplies and materials purchased would become property of ODE but would be given to the district after filing of paperwork with the state. If it doesn’t work, we can at least say we tried to better our situation by controlling the things we can.

As a second generation McKenzie alumnus, I whole heartedly understand how any changes to the school that we all love and value can be scary. In her 75 years McKenzie has served as much more than just a school to this community. McKenzie Schools have been the hub of the valley, working to meet the needs of our children and families. It is in hopes of continuing that tradition that no option should go un-pursued.

If you would like to learn more about charter schools and what they could mean for McKenzie, please mark your calendars for a community meeting with Kate Pattison and the McKenzie steering committee Thursday, April 21st.  If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to call me, Brent Meister or Lacey Joy at 541-822-3313.

Thank you,
Lane Tompkins