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Virtual Schools: Cyber Pie in the Sky?

11:24 am in Public education by Gary Cohn

Sandy Hellebrand was concerned. She needed to find a school that could educate her son Gabriel, who has autism and was about to enter high school.

Hellebrand thought she had found the perfect solution: She would enroll Gabriel and her two younger children in Sky Mountain Charter School, one of a rapidly-growing number of virtual schools in California and across the country.

After all, she reasoned, the school would provide excellent online instructional materials and instructors to guide Gabriel’s individual needs. Since Sky Mountain is a publicly funded school – although not a traditional brick-and-mortar one – the state of California would pay for her children’s education. And Hellebrand and her husband Rob, a public high school teacher, would receive about $1,800 a year for each of their children to help defray their costs of educating them at home.

“The idea is fantastic,” she says in an interview with Frying Pan News. Hellebrand, who lives in Oak Hills, in the northern high desert of San Bernardino County, ticks off the benefits of virtual schools and the education specialist she knew Sky Mountain would provide for Gabriel: “The resources, the supplies, another brain and another set of eyes. It gives the ability to tailor [an education program] to each kid.”

The only problem was that Sky Mountain never accepted Gabriel.

“We have received your Student’s Enrollment Application, and are honored that you are considering our school for your child’s education,” Sky Mountain wrote the Hellebrands in February 2012. “Unfortunately, we were not able to place your student with an Educational Specialist for the school year.”

Hellebrand says that this was just the latest brush-off Sky Mountain had given her efforts to enroll Gabriel during two years and believes Gabriel’s autism played a role in the school’s decision.

“I feel very disappointed and burned,” Hellebrand says. “It’s a school that takes tax money. If you do that, you need to serve the community. I don’t know how they can pick and choose like that.”

When asked about Hellebrand’s comments, Randy Gaschler, founder and president of Innovative Education Management, which manages Sky Mountain and other virtual schools, said he didn’t have the specifics on her son’s case. Gaschler denies his schools bar students with disabilities.

“We don’t have any sort of policy like that,” Gaschler says. “We have hundreds of special-education students in our schools. We do everything we can do to make sure we are in compliance. We don’t deny any student admissions to our schools because they are a special education student.”

According to the National Education Policy Center, there are 311 full-time virtual schools nationwide with an estimated 200,000 students. Supporters claim online schooling will revolutionize teaching and learning, reducing the cost and increasing the availability of high-quality education. Virtual education has grown rapidly over the past decade to become an integral part of the education reform movement.

It has also emerged as a tool of choice in the bitterly partisan campaign to privatize education. One key player in this campaign has been the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-controlled generator of far-right legislation, including Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground gun law and a 2012 Michigan law that hobbled unions’ ability to collect membership dues. The expansion of virtual schools has been made possible by numerous bills passed by state legislatures across the country and has been fueled partly by ALEC. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC-crafted legislation promoting virtual schools has been adopted in Tennessee and Florida.

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Why Charter Schools Are Tearing Public Campuses Apart

8:04 am in Charter schools, Public education by Gary Cohn

School Library

Co-location allows charter schools to further drain the resources of public schools.

For more than 30 years each, Cheryl Smith-Vincent and Cheryl Ortega have shared a passion for teaching public school in Southern California. Smith-Vincent teaches third grade at Miles Avenue Elementary School in Huntington Park; before retiring, Ortega taught kindergarten at Logan Street Elementary School in Echo Park. Both women have been jolted by experiences with a little-known statewide policy that requires traditional public schools to share their facilities with charter schools. Ortega says she has seen charter-school children warned against greeting non-charter students who attend the same campus. Smith-Vincent reports that she and her students were pushed out of their classroom prior to a round of important student tests – just to accommodate a charter school that needed the space.

“It was extremely disruptive,” Smith-Vincent says of the incident.

The practice of housing a traditional public school and a charter school on the same campus is known as “co-location.” Charters are publicly funded yet independently operated, and are intended to encourage innovation and improve student performance. Under Proposition 39, a school-funding ballot initiative adopted by California voters in 2000, charter schools were given the right to use empty classrooms and share in underutilized public school facilities.

Proponents of the measure, including the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), claim that it ensures that all public school students, including those enrolled in charter schools, share equally in school district facilities. But critics contend that co-locating siphons key resources from the already-underfunded traditional public schools, depriving students of playground space, library time and other resources.

“One of the difficult things about having a charter school co-located on a district public school campus is that . . . the two schools end up competing for those things that are necessary to provide a quality education for the students,” says Robin Potash, an elementary school teacher and chair of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) Proposition 39 Committee. “That includes competing for the same students.”

“We’ve collected lots of anecdotal stories [about] the inequitable use of space, disparity of resources, use of school personnel, lack of services for special education students and English-language learners, and the meals that are provided – pre-packaged versus hot gourmet,” Potash continues. Her last point refers to some charter students receiving their lunches from Whole Foods.

Though the practice of co-location is little known to the general public, it is not uncommon in California. Co-locations exist or have been approved in San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego and in Kern County in California’s Central Valley. In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) alone, there are 65 co-locations involving traditional public schools and charters, with the district’s charter schools typically requesting space for about 25,000 students to be co-located.

“That’s the equivalent of finding space for the entire Pasadena Unified School District,” says Jose Cole-Gutierrez, LAUSD’s director of charter schools.

It’s not easy to house two separate schools on the same campus and it can be particularly difficult when the schools have separate and disparate cultures, educational philosophies and traditions. Charter school students sometimes wear uniforms, traditional public school students do not. Sometimes all of the students come from the neighborhood, other times many of the charter’s students are from different parts of Los Angeles. Sometimes the administrators at the schools cooperate; other times they compete. To be sure, some co-locations operate smoothly, with teachers, administrators and parents working together to minimize disruptions, although co-locations have also become controversial in New York City, for similar reasons as in California.

Ricardo Soto, the CCSA’s senior vice president for legal advocacy and general counsel, defends co-locations as a way to ensure that all public school students have access to facilities. He says that in many cases co-location makes sense because of declining enrollment in traditional public schools and increasing enrollment in charters.

Asked whether the co-locations set up a two-tier system, Soto says that “too often [traditional public schools] try to cordon off students from the charter school . . . Our experience is that charter school students at [co-location] sites tend to get the leftover space,” and that their access to amenities such as bathrooms, playgrounds and cafeterias is an “afterthought.”

News that a charter school is going to be sharing a traditional public school campus often provokes protests and hard feelings. Last year the Silver Lake community became divided after the Citizens of the World Charter was allowed to share the campus of the Micheltorena Elementary School.

“It was terrible,” says Kurt Bier, the father of a student at Micheltorena. “People didn’t want the charter to co-locate because it would draw resources away from students [already] attending Micheltorena. It divided the community. It pitted people against each other.”

The two schools are not scheduled to share space this fall, with Citizens of the World acquiring co-location status at Stoner Avenue Elementary School in Culver City.

This past June, parents and teachers at Boyle Heights’ Lorena Street Elementary School held a protest after it was announced that Extera Public Schools, a charter operation, would be sharing the campus for 2013-2014. The announcement was made five days before the end of the last school year, and protesters said this didn’t leave enough time for rational planning of how to share the space.

Extera was founded by former Hollywood talent agent Tom Strickler and is headed by veteran LAUSD educator Jim Kennedy; one of its stated goals is to introduce children to nature.

Eddie Rivas has taught at Breed Street Elementary School for the past three years, the last two of which was shared with an Extera charter. His fears of co-locations creating two-tiered systems are based on experience.

“The charter kids sense they are better than the public school kids,” says Rivas. “I’ll say good morning to charter school kids. They don’t know if it’s okay to say hello to me. The message is that they are better than us.”

Rivas’ worries are well-founded, according to Cheryl Ortega.

“I was walking my children up the ramp to go to recess and we were passing by the Gabriella campus,” says Ortega, recalling an incident she witnessed at Logan Elementary when she was subbing at the school not long after her retirement. Logan shares its campus with Gabriella Charter School under a lease agreement.

One of my little girls called out to a little girl [from the charter]. A teacher told the little girl in the charter to come away and said, ‘We don’t talk to Logan.’ It was as sad as could be. They are telling children they can’t mix or even speak to each other!

Others say the problems of co-location involve more than snobbery.

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