Thursday, September 5, 2002
Photo by Michelle Caldwell.
Photo: Max Gomez hones his tactile skills with a tube of Play Doh during Oasis Charter School''s first week in operation.
Years from now when five-year-old twins Emily and Joshua Cunanan reminisce about their elementary school days, they might recall with pride the brightly colored Spider Man hats they''re making in kindergarten this week-and are probably even more apt to recall reading Emily''s favorite book, Goodnight Moon, over and over again, too. But while those two childhood memories may be cookie-cutter, their education will be anything but.
Oasis Charter School in Salinas opened last week before the silent backdrop of its governing Alisal Union Elementary School District, riddled with controversy and uncertainty and hoarding headlines countywide. The district has no superintendent, though as of last week it thought it did. Its API scores-which may or may not be significant depending upon which report you read-are among the lowest in the county, averaging a 1.9 when placed on a statewide scale of 1 to 10. (The .9 can be attributed to the district''s single paragon, Steinbeck Elementary which scored an admirable 8. The nine others were given 1s or 2s-mostly 1s.)
Numbers aside, parents and teachers alike were looking for something different in local education. Oasis, the brainchild of a loosely governed group of teachers and parents, had a concept from its inception: "constructivism," a belief that learning is experiential, that children must be taught based on their uniqueness instead of as a group with standardized-test-result goals. So says Oasis'' director of education, Jane Meade-Roberts.
California adopted its Charter School law in the early ''90s amidst a rash of states doing the same. Thereafter, the state put the governing of those charters schools into the hands of local school districts.
Oasis was granted its five-year charter in 2001 by the Alisal School District, making it the first-ever-district-sponsored charter in Salinas.
Parents like Wendy Brooks looked to Oasis for the small-school community, and what she calls like-minded parents. "It''s like having a private school education with a public school cost."
That parental participation is paramount in the success of schools like Oasis, according to Meade-Roberts. "Good candidates for Oasis are families who believe in participating in education," she says.
Oasis, which relies on public funds, gives first priority to students who live in the Alisal School District. After that, it''s first come, first served.
The school has just about reached its capacity of 80 children in kindergarten through fifth grade, with four credentialed teachers at the helm. The concept of Oasis revolves around the intermingling of grades, with a maximum of 20 children in each classroom. The school plans to add another grade each year through eighth grade, with a maximum capacity of about 200 kids and 10 teachers.
Emily and Joshua''s mother, Julie, a credentialed teacher herself, says the appeal for her is individualization and those low class sizes, but adds that the attitude of the teachers is paramount. At Oasis it''s the teachers, collaborating with their colleagues within the school, who decide on the curriculum.
Meade-Roberts adds that while the school is still under the state''s mandate of standardized aptitude tests, the difference is how that level of education is reached. "For once, the teachers have the say in what goes on. They get the chance to be the professionals they really are."
While some critics point to a lack of extracurricular activities in charter schools as one reason for their opposition, Meade-Roberts isn''t concerned about that aspect of it. Oasis is integrating those sorts of activities into its daily routine, she says. Community members have committed themselves to teaching such things as sculpting, Aikido, music, wood art, ballet, watercolor, basketball and soccer. Meade-Roberts also looks forward to tapping into the resources at its doorstep in Old Town Salinas: the courthouse, the mayor''s office, the library and police department.
Ironically, Alisal School District Deputy Superintendent Dr. Barry Schimmel, one of a small number of people credited with seeing to it that Oasis opened at all, is also one of its most candid critics.
"We have enough to do without having charter schools too," he says. Schimmel makes no secret of his disdain for the way the state handled its charter schools at inception. "California dumped charter schools on public school districts," he gripes. "Charter schools are not cost effective, and they''re just another headache for school districts."
But despite his personal opinion of charter schools, Schimmel doesn''t hesitate in the slightest when it comes to his evaluation of Oasis and its management. "It is our responsibility as a school district to provide options for parents," he says. "They came in with a well-prepared plan, and we''re pleased with the good communication that we have."
So why the ultimate support in light of the harsh criticism? Schimmel''s direct in his response: "I had two choices: I could sit around moaning, groaning and complaining about it, or I could spend my time and energy helping it get from Point A to Point B. I chose the latter."
If the students buzzing about Oasis are any indication, Schimmel chose the right path. "Our teachers took a pay cut to be here," Meade-Roberts says. "We''re all in this together for the children: the parents, the teachers and the community."