With enrollment low and costs high, Open Alternative School (OAS) finds itself under the microscope as Santa Barbara Unified School District decides whether its 88 students, ranging from transitional kindergarten through 8th grade, could be equally or better served in traditional classrooms. That question packed Tuesday evening’s school board meeting, as parents, teachers, and students past and present championed OAS’s whole-child approach to education, one that doesn’t teach for testing so much as to emotionally and socially empower kids with long-held techniques now considered ahead of their time. Parents and grandparents are also encouraged to participate in the classroom.
While supporters reiterated that education should not take a one-size-fits-all approach, they lamented being treated as the district’s black sheep. “Open Alternative is not dying; it’s being murdered,” OAS’s former nurse Deborah Pentland told boardmembers. Over the years, the school has suffered from transfer restrictions that have impacted enrollment, unkept promises of getting its own campus, and new teachers and administrators unaccustomed to its unorthodox style. Then came the district’s recent financial reveal. According to a cost-per-student breakdown presented by Assistant Superintendent Mitch Torina, OAS is on average more than twice as expensive as the district’s other elementary schools.
Though sitting boardmembers seemed optimistic — “We can make it work,” said Kate Parker — the long talk will likely be taken up by the new board majority that will be sworn in on December 13. “Education is hard, and there’s no silver bullet,” added boardmember Monique Limón. “We really need to think creatively.”