Charter middle school seeks expansion

Charter middle school seeks expansion

Michele Ellson
Academy of Alameda

Leaders of The Academy of Alameda Middle School charter want to open a grade school program in the fall of 2015.

The school board held a public hearing on the proposed charter on Tuesday and is tentatively scheduled to consider approval on October 14. State law requires school boards to approve proposed charters if specific criteria are met.

In an interview, the charter’s leaders said they feel the new school could help close the opportunity gap for the less affluent students the middle school was chartered to serve by providing them more intensive intervention earlier in their school careers. Ultimately, the Academy would like to extend its schooling to include a pre-kindergarten program.

The middle school has seen a more than 70-point jump in standardized test scores in its first three years of operation and has seen test scores rise across racial and ethnic groups – African American students, for example, have seen test scores rise by 90 points over that time period. But like may other schools, The Academy is seeing big test score gaps between groups – in 2012-13 its white students averaged an 897 on the Academic Performance Index, while African American students averaged a 715, state data show.

“It’s quite depressing when get child in the sixth grade who is significantly below grade level. There are limits to what you can do,” said Nora Bullock, the Academy of Alameda administrator who is spearheading the effort to create the new school. “The frequent refrain is, ‘If we’d had him in second grade, or if we’d had him in kindergarten.’”

The school’s mission, Bullock said, is to build students’ mindset and readiness to succeed in high school and college.

As proposed, the new school would offer full-day kindergarten staffed by teachers with aides and a longer school day for all of its other students than the one offered by Alameda’s traditional elementary schools and a structured after-school program. Students’ schedules would include an enrichment and intervention period designed to provide more targeted learning to students who are both excelling and struggling – high-achieving students will be able to work together on projects and test into higher grade-level classes – and mentoring and counseling services would be available for students who need them.

In addition to providing “a laser-like focus” on reading and math, the school would offer social studies and science, and its leaders are hoping to incorporate arts and a foreign language into the school day as well; like other schools, its curriculum will be based around Common Core standards. The school’s proponents are also seeking to provide one device – laptop or tablet – for every two students who attend.

Teachers will conduct home visits with families before each school year starts, and will provide more frequent performance updates to parents that traditional Alameda elementary schools provide. Bullock said that building strong relationships with families will be part of the school’s program.

The school’s leaders hope to build enrollment to 300 students over its first five years of operation as classes are added each year; K-3 classes will contain up to 24 students per teacher, while fourth and fifth grade classes will max out at 26 students per teacher. They said they plan to aggressively promote the school, which is to be separate from the middle school over its first five years, in the Island’s West End.

A recently released demographic analysis saw Alameda Unified’s enrollment in transitional kindergarten through fifth grade rising by 187 students over the next decade as development is anticipated to occur along the Island’s Northern Waterfront. More than 40 West End families attended an information night about the proposed elementary school, Bullock told the school board Tuesday.

The middle school has “a healthy wait list” for sixth and seventh grades, Executive Director Matt Huxley told the board; about three-quarters of the school’s students live in Alameda. California law requires charters to accept students from anywhere in the state.

Board members opted to hold their comments on the proposed charter until district staff makes its recommendation on whether to approve it. But board member Niel Tam, who worked as a principal in at least two West End schools, detailed some of the challenges the Academy will face in serving transitional families, and specifically families who are active in the Coast Guard or homeless.

“I commend you for taking on the challenge in and making a difference for the West End,” Tam said.

Charter schools have been favored by families seeking a broader array of schooling choices – an approach the school district has sought to replicate by providing teachers and families opportunities to build magnet and innovative programs at its schools. But opponents have criticized the schools for taking money and students out of the existing system, and some have questioned whether they are fulfilling their promise as laboratories for experimental schooling strategies that can be replicated elsewhere if they succeed.

Alameda Unified opened the Island’s first charter, the former Arthur Andersen Community Learning Center – now Alameda Community Learning Center – in 1996, as a school within a school on the Encinal High School campus. And the district’s leadership chose the charter route for The Academy of Alameda when it was forced to restructure the school because it failed to meet government mandated test score targets.

But the Alameda Community Learning Center leadership’s decision to create a new K-12 school, Nea Community Learning Center, touched off a furor among schools boosters who feared the school would siphon money out of the school district as it experienced deep state budget cuts and also, siphon high performing students out of Alameda Unified’s other schools.

About 1,300 students attend Alameda’s charter schools, which are public schools; the Academy now schools about 500 middle schoolers in grades six through eight.