Credit: Isaac Hernandez

A proposal for a nature-based charter school was shot down by the Santa Barbara Unified School Board Tuesday night after some 50 community members wrote letters to the board or spoke out in support of approving the school.

Despite the clear community support, Thoreau Charter School was narrowly rejected in a 2-2 vote. Boardmember Wendy Sims-Moten was absent. District staff recommended the board deny the charter school for several reasons, including multiple financial concerns, insufficient special education services, a poor governance structure, and more. 

The Thoreau team believes the staff report had errors and provided a 63-page response to the district’s findings a few days ahead of the vote. 

“We’re very disappointed, more in the process than the outcome, because of the staff report findings,” said Elizabeth Blair, the acting education director for Thoreau. “We obviously disagree with the district’s findings… Those details [Thoreau’s response to the district’s findings] were not included in the board comments last night, so they apparently didn’t read the most recent updated information.”

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This isn’t the end of the road for the proposed charter school, though. Blair said her team is considering taking Thoreau to the County Board of Education to appeal the decision.

“We are not stopping, and that’s in large part because of community response,” Blair said. “Even since last night, many people have already reached out to us in support. We’re not giving up.”

The nontraditional proposed TK-6 school places heavy emphasis on outdoor learning, social-emotional health, social justice, and student voice. The planning for Thoreau began in 2017 after the Open Alternative Charter School closed, but the seed was planted long before.

“I started working on this school when I was in 6th grade,” said Marianne D’Emidio-Caston, president of the Thoreau Board of Directors. “I sat in my seat, pinned to the floor, or to use Montessori’s metaphor, like a butterfly pinned to the wall. It was hot. I looked at the clock. How much longer until we get out? Why is school so incredibly confining? Why did I have so much more of myself engaged when I was outside doing things?”

D’Emidio-Caston said many children learn better when they can interact with the outdoors, and that a nontraditional approach to school doesn’t mean a softer curriculum — it’s rigorous. 

While the public was entirely supportive of the school and district staff recommended its denial, the board was evenly split on the school. Boardmember Virginia Alvarez was the most critical of the proposal, using her expertise in school budgets to shred Thoreau’s. She fired off several red flags she looks for in budgets, and then said she found all of them in the proposed Thoreau budget. 

Alvarez voted down the school along with Boardmember Rose Muñoz, who also cited transportation concerns for low-income students who live further away from the downtown site and cannot walk to school.

But the other two boardmembers wanted to give the school a chance by approving the charter for a three-year contract on the condition that it will address the district’s concerns. Board President Kate Ford was especially enthusiastic, as she has spent more than one third of her career as a charter school leader.

“I believe this team is qualified to run a charter,” Ford said. “I think this is a complex petition, and it’s more thorough than many approved charters I’ve seen over the years. It’s also innovative and has an out-of-the-box way of educating students…. Concerns alone don’t disqualify a charter for approval.”

Boardmember Laura Capps agreed with Ford’s assessment, saying that her “gut reaction” about Thoreau matched what Ford’s years of experience said. 

“I have to say, when I got the report Friday from our team, I was crestfallen,” Capps said. “I have given support verbally to this project since it was just an idea years ago. I’ve met with the team, and I’ve just been on record as such a proponent of outdoor education.”

Aside from the obvious community support at the Tuesday meeting, Thoreau also provided data on the growing number of families who have pledged interest in the school already. As of February 18, 209 students were signed up as meaningfully interested in attending the elementary school. One of the issues raised by district staff was that the Thoreau team hasn’t done enough outreach still, particularly to Latino families.

Founding Thoreau member Allison Turkish said that although the pandemic makes outreach much more difficult, she believes the team has conducted significant outreach. She printed 500 bilingual postcards about Thoreau and passed them out downtown at homes, daycare centers, laundromats, the Franklin Center food distribution, pediatrician offices, and more. They also decided that Thoreau would offer after-school childcare and free breakfast and free lunch programs, as those are heavily utilized by the Latino students currently enrolled in the district. 

“I’ve spent my life career studying how learning best occurs,” D’Emidio Caston said, “and what is necessary and sufficient to create a learning environment that serves the individual child, the expectations of the community, and the requirements of the state. Thoreau is the culmination of 50 years of scholarship and progressive practice.”

To inquire with the Thoreau team about its proposed school and its next steps, call or text (805) 243-8940 in English or Spanish. 

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