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Chartering Petaluma

Charter schools are often misunderstood. Do they "steal" kids from other schools? And just how academically rigorous are they?

I came across an article online recently which posed the question, “Are Charter Schools Better?” I read it with interest because I have my heart set on a particular charter school in town for my daughter, Olivia, who will be entering kindergarten this year.

As much as I wanted to know the answer to that question, as I read, I realized something that was missing: I didn’t really know what a charter school really was. So I decided to find out.

It turns out there is a lot going on with charter schools in Petaluma, including the conversion of "regular" schools into charters.  For example, both and  are what's known as “conversion charters.”  There is speculation that conversions are an attempt to get more money into a struggling school, as many charters are eligible for funding at both the state and federal levels. 

But Chris Rafanelli, Superintendent and Principal at Liberty Elementary said that their decision to become a charter school was motivated to give them “economic freedom,” which would allow them to continue to use the strong curriculum models they had established without having to be mandated to purchase texts that weren’t up to par. “This change allowed us to save thousands on text books,” Rafanelli said. 

So what exactly are charter schools?

First of all, they are tuition-free and open to all.  A “charter,” which establishes each school as a charter school, is essentially the contract that details the school’s program, goals, mission, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure that success. Most charter schools are granted their charter for five years and at the end of the term, the granting entity (State or local school district) may choose to renew the school’s contract.

Another way to look at charters is that they are independent public schools. They are allowed to operate using unique educational approaches and therefore have freedom and flexibility that regular public schools do not. In exchange, they are subject to more rigorous accountability standards than traditional public schools. 

Like traditional public schools, charters receive state monies but they often do additional fundraising to pay for programs that are not fully funded by the state or school districts.  Controversy has surrounded charter schools in that public schools are dependent on enrollment for funding. One of the criticisms of the charter school movement has been that the more charter schools there are the less money for traditional public schools because charters hurt enrollment numbers at those traditional public schools.

In addition to Liberty and Dunham, there are several charter schools, each offering a unique vision for education for students and their families.

The newest charter school in town is River Montessori Charter. Started only two years ago, this charter school is based on a Montessori method of education.

Montessori, based on the philosophies and developments of Italian educator Maria Montessori in the early 1900s, emphasizes the importance for self-directed learning by children.

Grassroots efforts to open the new school began with moms and dads siting together in a living room talking about the options for grade school for Montessori families. After some initial research and two years of hard work, this handful of parents opened River Montessori. 

“Basically, we wanted options for all children,” said Christina Isetta, President of the Board at River Montessori. “No one school is better than the other. Your child might be happy in one school and mine in another. But there wasn’t a Montessori option that wasn’t private in Petaluma and...we wanted that option to be available to everybody.”

Located in a 37,000 square foot building in the Ellis Creek area of Petaluma, River Montessori is now home to mixed-age classrooms for grades 1-5.

Their enrollment this year is at 130 kids, up from 98 last year. They plan to grow by 35 more students in the next year, eventually adding a 6th grade classroom, and mostly likely will have to go to a lottery system to accommodate the growing interest in the school.  

“What I like about Montessori, is it really is an individualized curriculum," Isetta said. "You aren’t going to see kids in a Montessori classroom plowing through worksheets. Teachers really follow the child. It scares people because they think there isn’t structure, but there is.”

Now in its tenth year, Live Oak is a K-8 charter school. It has 250 students and is based on the Waldorf methods of education.

Based on the pedagogical philosophies of Rudolf Steiner, the education at Live Oak is both “experiential and artistic” with a strong blend of arts and academics in an age appropriate fashion.

One of the big challenges for charter schools or any new school seems to be facilities. In the early days, Live Oak was located within a church in town but quickly outgrew it after three years. It is now located at the Petaluma Fairgrounds where half of their building is the old community college site.

Live Oak has an independent board and a nonprofit, but is ultimately accountable for their academic achievement and physical health to Petaluma City Schools, the school district, who holds their charter. With their own board, however, Live Oak can make their own policy decisions that govern their school.

Principal Will Stapp, says that charter schools provide the opportunity for experiments in public education that traditional public schools do not. "Public schools could benefit from Waldorf methods," he says.

Mary Collins at Cherry Valley is a K-8 school that became a “conversion charter” in 2002. Cherry Valley has a total student enrollment of 338 with 17 teachers.

Cherry Valley has a year round calendar broken into 9-week segments separated by 3-week breaks in the spring and fall. The school's academic roots are in a constructivist approach to learning, meaning emphasis is placed on the learner or the student and not the teacher or instructor. The learner interacts with objects and events and thereby gains an understanding of the features held by such objects or events. The learner, therefore, constructs his/her own conceptualizations and solutions to problems.

Marianne Riddle, parent to six year old, Estella Zea who attends Mary Collins, said she and her husband wanted an environment that focused on the “whole child.”

“Another big plus for us was when we chose our charter school was that it operates on a year-round schedule. We’ve found that our daughter stays inspired, and never stops loving school when the breaks are more evenly spaced in a school year,” Riddle said. “Performance is nurtured from early grades to develop public speaking skills as well as a way to encourage each student to communicate. Each child has their time to shine.”

Newest Charters:

At , Principal John Lehmann and staff members are opening a new education program in the fall of 2011. (Read the about it.) The Sixth Grade Charter Academy at Petaluma will place an emphasis on technology and innovation, giving students an opportunity to interact, collaborate, and communicate information and ideas to multiple audiences.

I had no idea that when I started my research that there are so many charter school options in Petaluma. Their charters allow them to be innovative and creative with their curriculums and teaching methodologies where traditional schools have been limited.

Another thing that's become clear, is that for parents who are interested, there are many choices when it comes to schools. But whether or not those schools are better? Well, perhaps that is a question best left to the experts. 

Christopher Fisher March 10, 2011 at 04:11 PM
I looked in vain for the mention you promised about "whether they 'steal' kids from other schools." The opening of River Montessori, in particular, was highly controversial and, as we all know, came at a time when public funding for our schools has come under unprecedented attack. It's an open question at this point whether, as a society, we remain fully committed to universal public education for our children. As parents, we all want to have a variety of educational options available to us so we can make the best choices on our children's behalf. However, the opening of River Montessori had direct and immediate consequences for McNear Elementary parents and students, resulting in the layoff of my daughter's second grade teacher, who happened to be the brightest, most enthusiastic young teaching professional we'd seen in a very long time. River's opening deserves a great deal more attention than it received here - the whole episode stank and we are still the worse off for it.
Frank Simpson March 10, 2011 at 06:17 PM
The "larger" question you may be referencing is whether or not charter schools are merely Trojan Horses to destroy the public school systems. There are many who argue that is precisely their purpose...
Michael Christian October 12, 2012 at 11:27 AM
Christopher and Frank, can you give a little more detail on the McNear status today? We have a similar issue today in Novato. Our district cannot afford another school, yet a charter has formed and will cause major disruption (probable school closure) as a result, hardly the intent of charter law. Thanks www.SaveOurNovatoSchools.com

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