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Upstart Charter School Backers Getting More Organized

Although a master plan for a new charter school in Novato isn't ready for prime time, the movement is gaining momentum as more basic information is released.

So many questions can't be answered quite yet about rough-draft plans for a new charter school in Novato. Where will it be located? How much will it cost? What will the language of its charter say?

No proposal has been issued to the yet, but lots of people around town — including prospective parents — are chatting freely about the North Bay Educational Foundation and its goals.

And so are the two people behind the idea, MJ Lonson and Robert Verhoeff. Their motivations, mysterious to many, are becoming clear after two recent public meetings. Their media shyness is wearing off now that momentum is slowly gaining in the community for a kindergarten-through-eighth grade public charter school that would serve as an alternative to options out there right now.

The curriculum would follow the Core Knowledge model (see PDF and videos), just like more than 700 other schools in the country, and provide a much different educational path than the 's Waldorf-based strategy. Lonson and Verhoeff say Core Knowledge, created by a former university professor, is a proven methodology that mixes educational lessons — math with history, history with science, science with social studies — and has a track record of improving standardized test results.

About 200 people showed up for a June 11 meeting at a local church, including some skeptics, and the result was a hearty ovation even though many specifics couldn't be answered. Then two weeks ago three representatives of another Core Knowledge school, Rocklin Academy, came to town to answer more questions.

Between the two meetings, Lonson said she and Verhoeff are receiving lots of positive feedback.

"Did I get what I wanted out of (the first meeting)? Yes, because we wanted to inform, get people inspired, get them to volunteer and give them an understanding that this is a whole community effort," Lonson said. "We got applause, which was amazing. It was a barometer, and that's one of the main reasons we did it."

Lonson and Verhoeff said they've talked with Superintendent Shalee Cunningham and other NUSD officials and invited the board of trustees to the two meetings. They said Cunningham's experience with charter schools at her previous job in Colorado works to everyone's benefit with this new campaign.

"Shalee said she is not afraid of charters," Lonson said. "We're hoping communication will stay open. They don't want to be blindsided with this."

"We're not passing judgment on what NUSD is doing," Verhoeff said. "We're bringing forth what we think is an exciting option. How they react is up to them. We hope they see it as a benefit and can work with them to bring this to community."

So who are these visionaries/instigators?

Lonson has been heavily involved in Novato public schools for two decades as her children have gone through the system. She has been a PTA president at three schools over the past 17 years and volunteered for countless school programs and projects.

Verhoeff has lived in Novato for eight years with his family, which includes three kids in the school district. His background is in accounting and he serves as an executive with Best Collateral in Bel Marin Keys.

"The main thing is we want kids in public education," Lonson said. "We feel this might offer a new alternative to attract kids and their parents from the private school sector. We have talked to people who are either planning to move or going private. I believe in public education and I want to see our schools going strong."

Verhoeff added that people who don't have kids in the public schools have approached them about the Core Knowledge curriculum and been willing to help get the effort off the ground. They said some teachers have thrown their support behind the campaign as well because of the creative license offered by Core Knowledge teaching methods.

"When the Rocklin folks came down, you could tell how much they were behind the Core Knowledge system," Lonson said. "They are seeing more students take advanced courses when they get to high school. If we got this going here, we'd like to work closely and collaborate with 's new and 's () program to get middle schoolers in the charter school on track to do well at the next level."

Although the idea of starting a new charter school is coming right when the fiscal climate is so unpredictable, it might be the most opportune time to get it rolling, Lonson and Verhoeff said. Their logic: NUSD is in the midst of a long-term school facilities study and assessment of school geographic boundaries, so answers could come over the next year — "possibly really good timing," Verhoeff said  — about where and how a new charter school could fit in.

From the funding perspective, Lonson and Verhoeff are fully aware of the commitment it would take by local parents to not only back such a school philsophically but also financially. But they see it as an attractive proposition for NUSD as well. A district that survives on state money from average daily attendance should be looking to retain as many kids in the public school system as possible by offering a variety of choices.

"If it attracts and retains students, you can't afford not to do it," Lonson said.

Lonson and Verhoeff said they plan to make a presentation to the NUSD board sometime soon and will continue to post information on their Facebook page and website. The next North Bay Educational Foundation board meeting is at 6:30 p.m. July 12 at Verhoeff's workplace, Best Collateral, 285 Bel Marin Keys Blvd., Suite L.

R. C. Taylor July 08, 2012 at 07:54 AM
Soccer Mom, You have a lot of anger and I am not sure where it is coming from, but I am sorry that you appear to be so unhappy. Tina: I have been reading your comments for many months now and I sure appreciate the time, research and fact based information you are sharing. You have courage and are brave. Most people aren't. Keep writing! Keep writing!----thank you from all of us who do not have your bravery.
R. C. Taylor July 08, 2012 at 07:56 AM
Thank you Scarlett! Well put! I am tired of the critics who sit on the couch and just bad mouth anyone who is trying to make Novato a better place. We need more options for our schools. I am not happy with our current ones.
R. C. Taylor July 08, 2012 at 07:58 AM
Mimi M. P. ---agreed. Novato Public Schools are in a world of hurt. This new idea of a Charter School is exciting!
Justin Hubbs July 08, 2012 at 03:56 PM
In a representative democracy (the form of government we have), you vote for people to represent you and they vote for laws, etc. This issue won't go to a popular vote any more than a bill before congress will; unless, of course, you gather signatures for an initiative...but we both know that won't happen because it's a lot of work and the outcome is uncertain.
Justice Moore July 08, 2012 at 08:00 PM
RVerhoff, thanks for the offer, but we are through with Charter Schools. After losing all our money and invested time, we have no interest in another one. One piece of advice I would offer, would be the information about the people who are trying to create a school, yourself for example. What are your qualifications and motivations? I understand that you are a Pawn Broker, how does that qualify you to hire/fire teachers, implement curriculum, and dispense of public funds? The Boards of these schools are not elected, but appointed, so how does that align with public interest and accountability? These are some of the reasons that about 20% of the schools fail. I don't think "passion" and "innovative ideas" are necessarily a recipe for success. Those running things should certainly be "vetted" thoroughly by the public, something that was not done well in Temecula. That is accountability.
ex principal July 08, 2012 at 09:51 PM
Top 10 things Charter Schools wont tell you http://www.smartmoney.com/spend/rip-offs/10-things-charter-schools-wont-tell-you/#articleTabs 1. We're no better than public schools. 2. Our teachers aren t certified. 3. Plus, they keep quitting. 4. Students with disabilities need not apply. 5. Separation of church and state? We found a loophole. 6. We don t need to tell you where your tax dollars are going. 7. We ll do anything to recruit more kids 8. but we ll push them out if they don t perform. 9. Success can be bought. 10. Even great teachers can only do so much.
ex principal July 08, 2012 at 09:59 PM
Make no mistake, when these people talk about "recruiting" or "targeting students and teachers".....they are referring to the easier to educate and the cheaper to employ. In other words, if a few students leave your childs' class to enter a charter school (like this one), the money follows them, as do the resources their parents may provide your school and your classroom. That is a fact. Novato Charter is located in the middle of low income housing, but how many disadvantaged kids go to that school? None. This new school intends to be located at Hill? How many people at Wyndover and the surrounding areas have they "reached out to"? ....we already know the answer to that question is none, but I hope I am wrong. Maybe Mr Verhoeff can answer that question and provide some proof?
Justin Hubbs July 09, 2012 at 12:47 AM
I think everybody here understands that It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect our public schools to cure all social ills. So it then becomes a question of where the school's responsibility reasonably ends and the parents' responsibility reasonably begins - this is unarguably a gray area. From your experience, what are some best practices for reaching out to low income and disadvantaged kids, and what kind of proof should we be looking for?
Justin Hubbs July 09, 2012 at 12:50 AM
Just out of curiosity, does anyone know how many monikers one individual can use on the Patch? I'm still waiting for a post from Seymour Butts...
Justin Hubbs July 09, 2012 at 01:25 AM
These are volunteers that want to get this right and you would be an asset to the process - you should reconsider!
Carrie Criswell July 09, 2012 at 02:45 AM
I.P. Freely, is there an I.P. Freely in the house? It is interesting how very vocal people disappear and suddenly a previous unseen poster comes on with the very same view.
Tina McMillan July 09, 2012 at 07:55 AM
http://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/si/cs/ap1/imagemap.aspx This website provided by the California department of education, shows a map of California where you can use your mouse to see county by county what charter schools currently exist. The state website has links to all the information about the formation of charter schools. It clarifies the misconceptions posted on this article. It is unfortunate that people feel the need to perpetuate myths. Charters are public schools. They are held accountable to state standards and they must perform to the satisfaction of the state and the community they serve or risk having their charter revoked. Starting a charter is a community process. It does not discriminate. Just as public school is available to all children so are charters.
Tina McMillan July 09, 2012 at 07:56 AM
Since their inception in California in 1992, charters have grown in number and in performance. Charter is an integral part of public education. It is an area where innovation can be used to improve curriculum design. Charter is not a threat to public education; it is a part of public education. Charter and magnet schools work hand in hand with neighborhood schools. In some instances communities flourish because the choices offered through Charter bring children back to the districts they serve. If we can pull together a successful Core Knowledge Charter then we will have one more option here in Novato. If our Waldorf charter could expand in size it would likely draw additional students. Marin School of the Arts is a successful magnet school. San Marin is building on this concept by creating their own magnet schools that incorporate art and technology. We are fortunate to live in a community where most people celebrate innovation and are not afraid to try to improve public education for all our children
Justin Hubbs July 09, 2012 at 06:22 PM
My experience has taught me two things: 1) When someone's intellect fails them, they tend to resort to personal attacks. 2) When you roll around in the mud with pigs, you both get dirty but the pigs likes it.
Ross Ingels July 10, 2012 at 04:14 AM
I think just one. Maybe there are just more people out there that feel the same way.
Amy Oclassen July 10, 2012 at 04:38 AM
Not to split hairs, but the recent decision to make Rancho a neighborhood school is just the opposite of "OPEN to ALL"...it is now restricted to priority of enrollment based on proximity, thereby tying education to real estate once again. Real estate agents are having a field day touting their listings in the "coveted Rancho school district" and many neighbors are joyously watching their property values skyrocket. Rancho was previously "OPEN to ALL", but no longer.
TAK July 11, 2012 at 08:20 PM
North Bay Educational Foundation to Hold Public, Informational Meeting about New Core Knowledge Pre-K to 8th Grade Charter School Planned to Open August, 2013 in Novato. Presentation to Include Core Knowledge Curriculum, Charter Admissions and Enrollment Planning; Consideration for Intent to Register Signatures will be Gathered. WHEN: Sunday, July 15 2012, 4:00pm WHO: North Bay Educational Foundation (NBEF) WHERE: Best Western Novato Oaks Hotel in the Oak Room (behind Burger King and Next to Wild Fox in Ignacio) at 215 Alameda Del Prado
jam July 16, 2012 at 04:16 PM
Bravo to the earlier post "If the schools of NUSD aren't what you are looking for, you do have a choice. Send your children to private school." I couldn't have said it better myself. I also agree with "This "foundation" is a small handful of Rancho parents looking to do the same thing all over again. Separate themselves and their children from "those other kids". They want private school education and want the NUSD to pay for it. What a coincidence that MJ Lonson was a Rancho parent and is now very involved in starting a charter school.
jam July 16, 2012 at 04:33 PM
Sip the Suds...I don't think it is any of your business if I attended the meeting or not. If you read my post carefully, you would see that I was merely agreeing with two earlier posts. Oh, and by the way, there was another earlier post that referred to "freedom of speech".
TAK July 16, 2012 at 05:09 PM
Parents are leaving Novato, either moving or placing their children in private school. That is taking money from NUSD. Why wouldn't we embrace a choice that could keep or bring ADA back to the district, and that might actually be a stronger cirriculum? Sometimes facts get in the way of a good story ... We are not a Rancho family, and I am interested in exploring this Core Knowledge cirriculum for my children. At yesterday's meeting the open enrollment procedures and outreach plans for the entire community was discussed. I have just recently met Ms. Lonson and find her legacy of volunteerism and passion for public education inspirational. Her children are grown and will not attend or benefit from this school. I hope this can continue to be a productive forum for discussion and information.
JT July 16, 2012 at 05:33 PM
It is important to pay careful attention to the funding question. It is easy to simply say that the funding follows the student and that a new charter will not financially impact NUSD. However, NUSD is still required to provide facilities and if you read the link provided carefully you will see that the funding provided by the State for facilities is underfunded AND attached to an enrollment demographic, which means that if the enrollment percentage is not met, then the Charter is not elligible to receive it. It is highly possible that the facilities cost will encroach on NUSD's budget. Remember, the ADA $ that NUSD used to receive for the students attending the charter, now goes to the charter so the facilities cost is unfunded by the State. It is too soon to know how this piece is going to play out, but there is a very real possibility that this new charter will negatively impact NUSD's general fund which then impacts the students and staff who remain. How this effort to create choice for some impacts the rest is a very important question.
JT July 16, 2012 at 11:46 PM
When kids go to the Charter the ADA does not remain in (or come back to) the NUSD general fund. The ADA is counted towards the amount the Charter gets. There are different funding models, but that is generally how it works.
Amy Oclassen July 17, 2012 at 10:41 PM
This is not exactly correct. Direct-funded charter schools in California (as I assume this one would be) are taken into account in the revenue limit calculation which determines overall base district funding. Here is a link to a very informative report on the California public school funding structure: http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_310MWR.pdf I have now seen and heard this comment repeatedly about "you have a choice, it's called private school" and I really must respond that it is galling to me that anyone should suggest that if a parent doesn't have $10k+ per year to invest in private school that they should just accept whatever the state provides. Really?? Rich people should have a choice but everyone else should just fall in line? Quality education is an open market commodity and you get what you pay for? I object to that notion - quality PUBLIC education is of vital importance to our entire community and striving to find new and better solutions to meeting the needs of all of our students should be a goal for all of us, and that can include helping strengthen existing programs as well as exploring new ones. An energized district is good for everyone and innovative programs that are open to all and geared toward recognizing and addressing different learning needs should be a cause for excitement rather than ridicule.
ex principal July 18, 2012 at 03:31 PM
The conundrum of “parent choice” in education today, and specifically in Novato, is solving for the individual needs of a child and a desire for “innovative approaches to education”. Parents who promote “choice” also happen to be the same who prefer a sibling guarantee at school. This seems at odds with the notion that all kids learn differently. With that belief, siblings may require a different educational approach, thus a different school potentially. When charter schools promote new educational approaches and couple that with a sibling enrollment guarantee, “choice” has turned into “convenience” for the most part. This seems antithetical to solving for individual needs.
bond July 18, 2012 at 03:45 PM
For the most part, this exercise has been civil; however, [for what it’s worth...] this "electronic town hall" discussion [your allegiance notwithstanding] would be far more productive, if we stay focused on the issue at hand: ONLY...
Tina McMillan July 18, 2012 at 05:03 PM
Siblings can make a different choice, just as they can in a traditional neighborhood school. They are given priority because charter law allows you, as in traditional public school, to put siblings together. I would say it is far more than convenience. It seems like most of your arguments are with the formation of charter as a legal concept. In 1992 California made charter schools a public option. It is up to families to decide if they want to exercise that option. The belief that innovation in education will hurt this community is not accurate. We learn from all the programs in our district and we have many. We are one of three districts in Marin to even have an existing charter school, while Sonoma county has 40+.
Brent Ainsworth (Editor) July 19, 2012 at 11:13 PM
Here is a story on the proposed new charter school by the Marin IJ: http://www.marinij.com/novato/ci_21113788/novato-group-proposes-new-charter-school
Mark Schoenbaum July 20, 2012 at 01:55 AM
Bud Light - then why do you feel compelled to use a dozen or more troll accounts to constantly post. And if you are honest you don't hide behind a moniker.
Justin Hubbs August 16, 2012 at 09:14 PM
Answerme this - Why wouldn't an ex principal be able, no eager, to answer my question? So here's another opportunity - From your experience, what are some best practices for reaching out to low income and disadvantaged kids, and what kind of proof should we be looking for?
Brent Ainsworth (Editor) August 22, 2012 at 01:19 AM
Folks: A reminder to be respectful to others as you post your comments. It's great that we're having a dialogue here, but let's do it in a classy way. I really don't like having to delete comments that cross the line.

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