Charting the Unknown

Noël Defends Charter School Proposal

by Ethan Stewart

Never one to win a popularity contest amongst his fellow Santa Barbara School boardmembers, Bob Noël was once again on the hot seat last Tuesday as he officially pitched his plans for a new charter high school. Last month, Noël shocked the board with the announcement that he had received nearly $500,000 in state start-up funds to create a new charter school. But it wasn’t until Tuesday’s meeting that boardmembers could formally respond to the news and ask questions. Holding true to their initial apprehensions, both new and veteran boardmembers identified a seemingly endless list of the would-be school’s potential pitfalls — punctuated by the very occasional voice of support.

At the core of the American Charter School proposal are three programs that served as the foundation for Noël’s successful reelection campaign last fall, though at that time he pitched them as schools-within-a-school, not as the basis for a charter. Drawing on similar programs throughout the state, Noël detailed his vision of a 450-550 student high school that prepares youths for college while offering them the opportunity to take part in a Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Academy (which would replace the similar, popular Junior ROTC program cut by the district last spring), a Construction Technology Institute that teaches home building and design, or an Advanced Studies Prep Program designed to help students with a B or C average who defy both remedial and AP placement. Noël told boardmembers that his motivation for opening a charter school was to help “at-risk students, students who need a highly structured environment, students who don’t find what is going on in the classroom to be relevant … and kids in the middle.”

But Noël’s fellow boardmembers remained less than convinced. Although state law prevents a school board from voting down a proposed charter based on financial concerns, Annette Cordero expressed concern about the cash-strapped district’s losing an estimated $3.5 million should the school open and achieve its desired enrollment. Cordero also raised the issue of Noël’s possible conflict of interest in helping to launch the school even as he served on the board. The board’s newest member, Kate Parker, echoed Cordero’s fiscal concerns and questioned the vastly different directions of the charter’s three programs and whether there was real parent support for the proposal. Laura Malakoff was concerned about the scheduling and staffing issues of such a varied school.

And the board’s newly appointed president, Nancy Harter, termed some of the charter’s concepts “duplications of efforts” already underway in public schools, such as the AVID program for middle-of-the-road students and the vocational program at Dos Pueblos High School. Harter also listed countless start-up costs — including books, computers, and insurance — and asked whether credits would be transferable to other high schools and how discipline would be handled.

Even former boardmember Lynn Rodriguez turned out to speak against the charter proposal, stating, “The district needs and thrives on innovation, but I think those things should be done without hurting other students in the district.

Noël himself admits it will be a “tough road” to realizing the American Charter School, especially since it must open by next September with at least 20 students in order to receive the state’s funding. But he remained optimistic, saying in closing, “I really think there is a chance to put together something that will be successful.” He promised to distance himself from the actual development of the school, should a conflict of interest be identified. He urged boardmembers to continue expressing their concerns in hopes of improving the final proposal and garnering support.

But before the board can even vote on the proposal — which Noël expects could happen as soon as February — he must compile a petition that fleshes out the proposal in greater detail and includes signatures from either 50 percent of the parents of would-be students or 50 percent of would-be teachers.

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