The leaders of Navigator Schools, a charter management organization attempting to launch a third school in Morgan Hill, on Tuesday officially submitted their petition to open a new school to the Morgan Hill Unified School District Board of Education, which could approve a new charter school that would launch in 2014.
Now, after months of buildup following a January presentation by Principal James Dent – who, along with co-founders, launched Gilroy Prep School in 2012 and is preparing to open Hollister Prep in 2014 – the ball is in the court of the district trustees, who have heard repeated pleas from local parents advocating for better educational opportunities for their children.
“My feeling about last night was, as usual, the Morgan Hill Unified School District board members asked some really great questions,” said Dent, whose staff acquired more than 120 signatures from prospective students’ parents for the charter petition.
“I think they have done a really good job on their due diligence,” Dent continued. “I’m sure over the next 60 days we’ll have additional meetings with district staff.”
Next up: A public hearing within the next 30 days at the district office, where school staff and community members will discuss the relevance of opening a new charter school that would add another charter school to the Charter School of Morgan Hill that’s been around since 2001 at 9530 Monterey Road in northwest Morgan Hill.
After that, the Board of Education will have another 30 days to take a vote on the issue.
MHUSD Superintendent Wes Smith, who has met with and communicated regularly with Dent and Navigator Schools officials, agreed with Dent’s positive synopsis.
“I don’t think it was as big a deal as some people might have thought it would be,” said Smith, downplaying recent controversy between the district and pro-charter supporters. “It was what we thought it would be, and I thought it went pretty well.”
Gilroy Prep School opened in 2010 on I.O.O.F Avenue in Gilroy. In its first year of operation, the charter broke the 970 API barrier – the state’s benchmark for this score is 800 – and is also the highest-performing first-year charter out of 500 in the state of California since 2006. The previous high score was 957. Navigator Schools’ goal is to spread successful learning models and lower the achievement gap by establishing additional charter schools in up to eight other cities, according to its founders that include Dent and Vice Principal Sharon Waller.
A large group of Morgan Hill parents, organized by People Acting in the Community Together, or PACT, want to be that next city.
“Enough is enough,” said parent Roberto Auguierrez, who has two elementary school children in MHUSD that he believes are already falling behind. “We need to make real changes.”
PACT-led parents have been extremely vocal, calling on the Board of Education to recognize MHUSD’s “crisis.” Those flames were fueled last week when the California Department of Education released its graduation/dropout rates, showing MHUSD to have the lowest graduation rate in the county. Smith and the district have, however, vehemently disputed the data and are working with the CDE to analyze what MHUSD officials call inaccurate statistics.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Dent was called back to the podium to answer questions from board members, five of whom already made visits to the Gilroy Prep campus to get a better feel for the educational experience.
“I sincerely believe that you are very interested in narrowing the achievement gap and I share that interest with you,” said Board President Don Moody.
Moody also asked Dent what specific areas in Morgan Hill the Navigator Schools team targeted while acquiring 120 signatures for the petition, which only needs 90 before being submitted to MHUSD.
Dent said his Navigator Schools staff always canvass the lowest-income, lowest-performing areas of a district for signatures. Furthermore, they only ask for signatures from families with children approaching kindergarten age.
That’s when board trustee Claudia Rossi jumped in. She wanted to know what percentage of those parents who signed the petition will actually get their children enrolled at the proposed Navigator School, if it becomes a reality.
She said alleged “promises have been made” from Dent’s staff to parents who may not have been informed of the low enrollment numbers at the school, which will only enroll 60 students each for kindergarten, first grade and second grade. Like the Gilroy and Hollister charters, the Morgan Hill charter would expand by tacking on a grade each year through the eighth grade.
Dent made no attempt to hide that fact, admitting “that’s a very unfortunate part of it. We’re keeping our schools small ... there’s a limit of 60 kids per grade level.”
As for educating special needs students, Dent said those students are treated in the same manner as all charter students. They are not pulled out of regular classes for special resource time, where they would miss the instruction other students are receiving.
“Their game is being raised to a very high level as well,” said Dent, who has yet to receive a complaint from a parent of a special needs student at GPS. “We will take any kid with any disability.”
If the Board of Education approves the Navigator Schools petition, the next step is identifying a location for the new charter school. Dent said the charter will make a facility request by December, then wait for the district to agree or come up with an alternative location.
“We’re pretty flexible,” said Dent of the location.
“We haven’t actually had any conversations about (facilities),” Smith said. “We’ll take his vision (of servicing the low-income, low-performing families) into account when we try to figure out what’s the best site.”
Scott Forstner is a general assignment reporter who covers education and other community issues for the Morgan Hill Times. Reach him at (408) 847-7158 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org