Thursday, July 12, 2001
Walt Ferguson plods through the back wing of Stilwell Elementary School, peering into dark classrooms, looking for vacant space. He''s done this walk several times, and counts seven or eight empty classrooms, either boarded up or used for storage. He''s convinced the site can temporarily house Cypress Grove Charter School for the Arts & Sciences.
"With a little consolidation, they could put those administrative offices into a modular or allow me to put in a few portables--it''s a huge site," says Ferguson, a Carmel Realtor and Cypress Grove''s founder.
But huge as the site--and the dream--may be, Ferguson''s running short on time.
And, according to Ferguson, he''s short on cooperation from the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District Superintendent.
On July 16, the Monterey Peninsula Unified School Board of Trustees will make a recommendation on Cypress, whose charter the Board unanimously voted to support last February. The trustees may mandate that the Stilwell classrooms temporarily house the charter school. Or they may tell Ferguson to try again next year.
More than 123 students have already enrolled to attend Cypress Grove this fall. The charter school has a full faculty whose collective resumes read like something out of a Who''s Who Among High School Teachers, a board of directors, an approved curriculum, and above all else, a vision. Ferguson has parents, teachers, students and Congressman Sam Farr on his side. But Ferguson fears Superintendent Bob Infelise is slowly and quietly shutting the door in their faces.
Infelise says that the school has not fulfilled its requirements to come up with 150 students and a viable business plan. Ferguson says it is clear that those requirements will be met soon.
"I need to be able to convince [the Superintendent''s office] to allow me to move forward on utilizing this site," Ferguson says. "If we can''t..." he doesn''t finish the thought.
While Ferguson has counted eight vacant classrooms, he says he has been told that there are currently 13 unused classrooms at Stilwell, which could easily house Cypress Grove''s incoming students.
Bob Infelise says that is simply not true.
Earlier that same overcast morning, Infelise says, he made that same walk around Stilwell.
"They argue that there are facilities at Stilwell; we say there aren''t," Infelise says. "There are two classrooms that are unused right now. You might be able to squeeze in a third one." He adds that any empty classrooms next year will be used to accommodate students living in the 192 refurbished Abrams housing units at Fort Ord.
Parents and teachers hope the idea survives.
"This in an opportunity for students and teachers alike to step outside the box and approach school a little differently," says Fred Rubin, who prior to signing on with Cypress Grove was a Monterey Bay Aquarium Teacher fellow. He also previously taught a Marine and Agricultural science program in Mendocino County. "The small class size is one magnificent part, the caliber of teachers that we have is absolutely outstanding. In 20 years of teaching this is one of the most dynamic groups I have ever witnessed."
Anne Auburn, whose son is enrolled at Cypress Grove, is hopeful that the school find a home.
"Cypress Grove feels like a dream come true," Auburn says. "Our son''s major areas of interest are the arts and sciences--he was the lead in the school play at Carmel Middle School, and he excelled in his science projects. And when we heard about this school, we said it was tailor-made for our son."
After getting the go-ahead from the school district in February, Ferguson presented a proposal to lease the former Fort Ord Officers Club building from the district, build seven temporary modular units in the parking lot, and refurbish the old club section by section. Because of Cypress Grove''s charter-school status, the State of California would not require seismic upgrades, and the school''s architect found a solution to meet the ADA requirements. The city of Seaside also approved the plan. Ferguson says all the pieces fit until Superintendent Infelise decided to hold the Officers Club location for another district school, Chartwell, which has also been looking for a new location.
Plan 2 was for Cypress Grove to lease land at the Goodwill Industries Shoreline Campus in Marina, which is currently in use as a vocational training school. But then a legal snafu nixed the plan--the U.S. Department of Education jumped in and said federal law mandates that the land continue to be used for job training.
Which brings Ferguson and Cypress Grove to Stilwell. And the possibility of salvation or damnation on July 16.
"I''ve reviewed it with staff more than once," Infelise says, talking about the Stilwell School site. "The original intent was right-on; this [charter school] is good. But you have to find another facility other than the school district property--you have to have 150 students and a viable business plan. And they don''t have that."
One week before the school board meeting, Ferguson stares longingly at the boarded-up old Fort Ord officer''s club.
"This section there is a ballroom area, with sliding partitions that could be sectioned off into classrooms. And this area, a bar area, could have been a great science classroom. In the back there, that could have been a multi-purpose room. The back bar could have been a music room.
"And what really bugs me," Ferguson adds, "is that if you walk in the front doors, and look at the wall immediately to the left, it has ''Ferguson Hall'' on a big brass plaque."