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Op-Ed: Secrecy is Rancho's Newest Secret Weapon

A group called Fairness For Novato Schools asks why a petition is being circulated about the possibility of changing Rancho School into a charter school and why it isn't out in the open.

Editor's note: in Novato, a former "back to basics" school located in the Presidents neighborhood, does not have traditional geographic boundaries to mark which students will attend the school. Rancho and at Hamilton are the only elementaries in Novato that have no enrollment boundaries and draw kids from all over the city. Rancho uses a lottery system to formulate its student population.

Rancho has a student population less ethnically and socioeconomically diverse than other Novato schools, according to statistics. It has some of the highest test scores in Marin County year after year and is a huge source of pride for the school and district. The Rancho curriculum has been identical to other elementary schools since 2005, yet parents wait in long lines each year to participate in the lottery.

A Novato Patch story published on Feb. 5 titled resulted in more than 200 comments and was cited at several school board meetings, sparking a debate over the fairness of the school's enrollment setup.

A group called Fairness for Novato Schools shares this opinion piece with Novato Patch readers to address the possibility of Rancho becoming a charter school.

By Fairness for Novato Schools

Secrecy surrounding development of a charter petition by some teachers and parents at in Novato suggests less than high-minded motivations. 

If this secret group believes that the  is missing an important educational option, then why the secrecy? We’re sure families across the NUSD would support a truly new approach and choice in the district. What might be the motivation? 

Rancho already has exceptional scores as measured by state test results, so a charter geared toward higher test scores seems unlikely and frivolous. Through the course of public debate over the past year, Rancho parents were clearly and rightly proud of the schools test scores. Debate also brought to light the fact that there are no curriculum or programmatic differences between Rancho and the other local elementary schools.  Rancho is getting great results using state and NUSD standard instruction. So, again, what is the motivation?

Our first clue may come from examining what changed last year. The school district revised the intra-district transfer policy to make requirements for application and enrollment consistent across all school sites. The change primarily affects previous and unique to Rancho enrollment requirements that were determined to be noncompliant with California education code. 

In fact, the only change we can identify that may have triggered the secret charter effort involves the process by which students get into Rancho. Could it be that these teachers and parents are proposing a charter not for any real educational objectives but instead to regain control over who gets into the school?

Novato's population of English language learners has quadrupled since 1996.  Since 1988, Rancho has consistently enrolled a skewed demographic when compared to the district and the neighborhood where it is located. The most recent data show Rancho with 6 percent Latino and 6 percent free and reduced lunch participation. Compare that to 31 percent and 32 percent respectively for the district or 51 percent and 62 percent for , the neighborhood school closest to the Rancho school site. 

Charter schools were conceived as a way to generate new or unique approaches to education, and so far most studies find mixed results with some charter schools performing very well and others significantly underperforming similar demographics.  The studies also consistently identify significant racial and socioeconomic concentration at charter schools. It would appear that some charters are aimed at improving the performance of traditionally low performing students while other charters are geared toward creating hurdles to keep those kids out.

What is the aim of this secret charter petition? We’ll have to wait. Right now, it’s a secret.

Eric Winkler September 21, 2011 at 08:09 PM
So, a group of parents, teachers and residents where 99 percent of its membership doesn't want to be publically identified with the group is complaining that another group of parents, teachers and residents have been "secretly meeting" about forming a charter school? To an outsider, that appears to be the same thing: one "secret group" complaining about another "secret group." Who knew Novato had all of these groups of intrigue? I certainly hope they don't accidentally pick the same secret meeting place at the same time...talk about awkward!
Anne September 21, 2011 at 08:17 PM
This is insane!!!!!!!
Tina McMillan September 21, 2011 at 08:24 PM
Craig A Novato Charter school includes all of Novato and nearby counties. It gives priority to Novato residents but children from other districts may also apply. It is completely legal and an option being used throughout the United States to address the growing number of students who don't fit into a one size fits all approach. Marin School Of The Arts is our charter high school program. It is located at Novato High School and shares the campus. It has been an incredible asset to Novato and to all who attend. Students are able to major in graphic art, digital art, dance, drama, band, voice and the list goes on. It really works for those kids who know they want a high school education focused in an arts direction. In New York, in the 70's the regular public school system had a similar program. It wasn't a charter; it was just one of many tracks available to high school students. I believe BOCES still exists though I don't know if it is as comprehensive as when I lived there. We had an amazing art program including sculpture, painting, metal art, jewelry making, design and drawing. We also had drama and music, a vocational track and a university track. Many options for a diverse population.
Justin Hubbs September 21, 2011 at 08:25 PM
Isn't NUSD largly funded by state tax dollars (including funds derived from taxpayers outside of Novato)? Don't the dollars follow the student by formula and not the political organization? Perhaps there's a Rancho family tax deduction I don't know about? As far as I know, Rancho families would still pay the parcel tax that currently benefits the district (Correct me if I'm wrong). Wouldn't a Charter pay rent to the district? You have every right to be concerned about how your tax dollars are spent, and so does Tina. I wonder if you know how much of your tax dollars actually go to running NUSD, you probably don't care but thankfully, the public school system is established, regulated and financed by the state, and the state has created the Charter option, partially for this very reason.
Michael Christian September 21, 2011 at 08:27 PM
Actually Eric, it was more about preserving friendships with annonymity for families that shared the contents of the secret letter to the author(s). Are you going to ask the same of the authors of the letter describing the clandestine charter effort? After all we are supposed to be a Unified school district. Schools should be working with each other, not hiding from each other. Similar to how I publicly defended you and San Jose and what a great school it really is while being maligned by viscious rumors back in March.... Michael Christian 9:40am on Thursday, March 10, 2011 Thank You Eric. I intend to continue to support my neighborhood schools. Unfortunately the court of public opinion often does not do the appropriate fact finding despite the efforts of dedicated parents like yourself. Dr Derby addressed some rumors at a recent Board meeting. "urban legends" #6 and #8 should be of interest to anyone willing to fact find on the NUSD website. I might add the SJ API score for Caucasian subgroup (48% of the SJ population) is 913, the 5th highest of all 14 schools in NUSD, congratulations. Let's all stop the rumors and disparaging comments unless you are able to back it up with fact rather than "I heard somewhere...." It is hurting our community and as Patois stated above, our kids as a result. What do they teach us in Kindergarten, "if you can't say something nice.........."?
Eric Winkler September 21, 2011 at 08:38 PM
Hello Michael, From your posting, I think you may be under the impression I have something against you and I don't. My only intent in pushing the "who are you" issue was to bring people into the debate without the cover of anonymity. You ask the same of the other group and I think that is totally valid. Though, in fairness, the other group didn't post an anonymous editorial talking about the merits of Rancho as a charter school. I think it's sometimes too easy on the Internet for anonymous individuals to attack other people. I used to see it in the IJ when I was part of the soccer league and all in a sudden there would be a post from madeupname@gmail.com about what a horrible coach someone was appearing on a comments section after an article. In one case, it turned out to just be an ugly divorce that was playing out in public. The only point I was trying to make is that let's all use our names and take responsibility for our opinions. You are doing that and I commend you for that. Whether or not I agree with all of your points, I believe you are motivated by what you believe to be good for the kids and the community.
Leslie Benjamin September 21, 2011 at 09:12 PM
To clarify, the Marin School of the Arts is not a charter school.
Craig Knowlton September 21, 2011 at 09:19 PM
I think we are well aware of the benefits of a Charter school and I am not against them at all. I do believe if Rancho converted to a Charter, it would exacerbate the current commuter school problem and leave neighborhood schools to continue dealing with the large immigrant population that is disproportionately assigned in the district.
Justin Hubbs September 21, 2011 at 09:36 PM
Craig, hasn't it been argued and established that Rancho follows the same curriculum as all NUSD schools? Some have argued that it's not unique due to the curriculum but you are arguing that it acts like a private school. How does Rancho manage to "act like a private school." while following the same curriculum as the other schools?
Tea bags for Liberty September 21, 2011 at 09:49 PM
The teachers met yesterday and decided not to pursue a charter conversion. While there were enough yes votes to move forward legally, there wasn't a super majority, which was the desired level of participation to move forward. Charter conversion is not without uncertainty, and ultimately, for enough of the staff, uncertainty outweighed the possibilities. A tremendous amount of brilliant work and thinking was put into the vision for Rancho Charter, and for what it could offer Novato. We will not let those incredible ideas and enthusiasm for education go to waste. As much as we are able, we will implement these ideas into Rancho as it currently stands. Thank you to everyone who put so much into this effort. Well, I guess the unions control the school district. teachers toe the line when it comes to union power in public schools....no chance for reform or thinking outside the box. By next year Rancho will be shut down...you heard it here first.
Peter Hamilton September 21, 2011 at 10:04 PM
Justin, I provided what I thought was a useful piece of information to debate that outlines a number of different approaches to combining charter schools and diversity. I think someone who values both diverity and school choice could read it and learn something. I am not here to provide all the answers and I am not familar with PI transfer rates of different student sub groups through NUSD. I think that would make a great staff report at one of the school board meetings. To your point, I do know there is a very large difference between equal access and enrollment demograhpics. And to be very clear the charter code in California does not require a plan to provide equal access to a charter school. The charter code requires a plan to "achieve a racial and ethnic balance among its pupils that is reflective of the general population residing within the territorial jurisdiction of the school." Not a fan of bumper stickers anyway...
Craig Knowlton September 21, 2011 at 10:10 PM
You are right, Rancho does follow the same curriculum as all of the neighborhood schools. I think a better question is, how do they act like a neighborhood school, other than following the State curriculum and operating on public funds?
Justin Hubbs September 21, 2011 at 10:59 PM
Craig, thanks for responding! Rancho is similar to a neighborhood school in that it employs credentialed teachers, does not charge admission fees (like a private school would), is accountable to the public and the board, and does not control either it's curriculum or enrollment policies (as an NUSD school it follow NUSD policy). It's only fair that you now answer my question as I have answered yours...
Justin Hubbs September 21, 2011 at 11:16 PM
Peter, thanks for responding and I appreciate your comments. You and I agree on three things: 1) We don't have the answers. 2) PI transfer rates would make a good staff report (I truly believe that the reasons are more complicated than we think). 3) Not a fan of bumper stickers :)
Craig Knowlton September 22, 2011 at 01:09 AM
It looks like we'll have to save this debate for another day: http://www.marinij.com/marinnews/ci_18947267 However, I will be fair and answer your question. The main problem that reflects "acting like a private school" also appears to have put a nail in the Charter school aspiration coffin; diversity and racial makeup. Regardless of the idea that "Rancho does not control it's enrollment policies", it is the system itself that is currently in place which creates a huge divide in the racial makeup of the school...even if that result is not intentional. I understand the district has taken control of the lottery, but the mere fact that occurred should point to a problem. Until Suzie or Jose that lives next door to the school can attend without winning a lottery, no other technicality qualifies it as a neighborhood school.
Eric Winkler September 22, 2011 at 03:41 PM
Well, now that we have the whole charter school debate shelved, this would be a great opportunity to hear what other things the 100 folks over at Fairness for Novato Schools are working on. Are they working on curriculum? Fund raising? Surely this group's charter must be wider than just being against a charter school. What is Friends for Novato Schools busy doing? What are their goals? How can the community help?
Tina McMillan September 22, 2011 at 04:58 PM
Leslie Thank you for clarifying. I didn't realize MSA was a school within a school. I thought it was a charter like Marin School Of Art and Technology. MSAT merged and moved outside Novato after some controversy. It was never clear to me why the program was shelved by our district. My understanding is that MSA accepts students from outside Novato and Marin. Is that true of our other High Schools as well? Is it easier to create a school within a school? I continue to believe we need more local options and that magnet schools are a viable way of engaging students. I read in the IJ that the teachers and families at Rancho decided not to apply for a Charter at this time. Does anyone know more about what happened to change their minds?
Justin Hubbs September 23, 2011 at 02:25 AM
The perennial debate over social and economic equality will continue long after we’re all dead and gone; how quaint that we think it will be resolved here in the halls of Novato’s public schools. Some in the community believe that education policy presents a good battle ground for this type of debate and perhaps have the luxury to engage in that destructive debate. The rest of us need to educate our children here, now, today and teach them how to read and write. I’m not sure what the studies will show about diversity and its contribution to success in college but I’m pretty sure those that don’t learn the basic skills taught in schools like Rancho will never be given the opportunity to participate in such studies. I hope “Fairness For Novato Schools” knows what they're doing and I hope they can proudly tell their children someday that dismantling Rancho made everyone's education just a little bit better.
Colette September 23, 2011 at 05:27 PM
I see Eric has not got a reply to what else "fairness for Novato Schools" are working on. Does this group only have one agenda!!!! am I wrong? I hope I am!! Maybe they need to change the name of the group to "lets dismantle Rancho"
Molly September 23, 2011 at 07:11 PM
Does anyone know how many children were allowed to transfer to Rancho from PI school(s)? We were offered the option to transfer into Rancho from our PI school but it was a lottery and we still did not get in. We were offered our second choice school (San Ramon) instead.
Ross Ingels September 23, 2011 at 10:02 PM
Great Question Molly. We were also offered Rancho as one of the three choices in our PI transfer list. For fun, we put it first and were then offered our second choice. I am not sure Rancho is actually open for PI transfers. I hae not actully ever met or heard of anyone getting Rancho on a PI transfer.
Molly September 23, 2011 at 10:09 PM
@Ross, two of our neighbors did get into Rancho on a PI transfer - one into Kindergarten, one into 5th grade. So, there were spots available. I was told there were around 30 for the whole school so perhaps 5 spots per grade?
Justin Hubbs September 23, 2011 at 10:42 PM
Ross & Molly, how is priority determined? Could it be that SED families are given 1st priority?
Molly September 23, 2011 at 10:55 PM
According to the paperwork that we got, any student attending a PI school has the right to request a transfer to a non-PI school. I'm assuming that all transfer applications were entered into a lottery for a spot at the chosen non-PI school. The application was very basic and there was no place to indicate if your child was ELL or SED so I don't know if there was a way to give any priority to them. Our two neighbors that got in were neither ELL or SED students.
Savage September 23, 2011 at 11:21 PM
Is there someone who falls into the socioeconomic and diversity sub-group on this thread of comments? If so please speak up! As of right now the comments appear to represent only one group’s varying opinions, on policies, what’s fair and not fair, and education philosophies. This is very concerning that as a community no one has reached out and gone door to door to find out what might work best for the socio economic and the diversity sub groups, regarding their own communities education concerns and philosophies. Until we have both sub groups voices represented on this comment thread, with their communities opinions regarding needs, concerns and ideas for their future academic careers, this posting appears to be one-sided and unethical. The Patch at this point needs to take down this posting until they have all the voices of Novato represented on such topics.
Savage September 23, 2011 at 11:22 PM
Would someone on this thread also speak up, if they feel they have been treated unfairly within the NUSD community? And please list actual facts as to why you you’re making this claim, the community has a right to know this. The Fairness for Novato Schools group owes the Novato Unified School District community, an explanation of their mission statement, their agenda for the Novato Schools, a public roster of their members, a list of the schools they believe are operating “unfairly”, a list of facts and data they have gathered to make such radical statements about Novato Schools, and a statement regarding their action plan for reaching out to the whole community with their current beliefs and philosophies. Right now, as a NUSD parent, this group has not contacted me or informed me of their philosophies regarding Novato Schools, which I am part of. Having school age children who will be going through NUSD, I find this very concerning, because it does not feel fair, it actually feels like they must have another agenda.
Patty Maher September 23, 2011 at 11:31 PM
Regarding the PI transfers, here's a link to the NUSD site that talks about how Parent Choice works with regard to the PI transfers. It specifically states that "In making decisions on school assignments, the district must give priority to the lowest-achieving students from low-income families." So SED status must be considered. The link: http://www.nusd.org/files/_UBLYo_/25ddd2c1f0aa50423745a49013852ec4/Program_Improvement_QA_2011-12.pdf
Molly September 23, 2011 at 11:34 PM
@Patty, thanks for the clarification. Unfortunately the link doesn't seem to be working, it keeps taking me to a login page for EDLIne.
Patty Maher September 23, 2011 at 11:36 PM
Sorry about the link problem. That is often an issue when trying to link to the NUSD's site. I'll grab it and save it as a PDF and post it.
Novato Federation of Teachers September 29, 2011 at 08:15 PM
@Melissa School Fuel is hosting a Candidates’ Debate on October 10th, from 6:00 - 8:00 pm at the Quest Church. The event is being offered to provide the community with an opportunity to ask questions and hear from the candidates in order to cast informed votes in November. Please contact Jennifer Treppa @ Jtreppa@aol.com or 892-2573 to confirm your attendance and if you have any questions.

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