Effort to boost school options evokes passion, fears

Effort to boost school options evokes passion, fears

Michele Ellson

Updated at 12:49 p.m. Sunday, February 24 in bold.

For the past several years, Alameda’s schools leaders have worked with educators and parents to put new schooling programs in place to meet parents’ desire for a broader range of educational options – and in doing so, retain families who might otherwise seek out charters or private schools for their children. But the district’s most recent effort to launch a middle school on the Encinal High School campus is colliding with one of the district’s foremost constraints – space – igniting frustrations and also, long-held anxieties about how some schools and students are perceived.

Those concerns boiled over at an informational workshop the Board of Education held at Encinal on Tuesday night, where four of five schools trustees said they would like to proceed with a full “Junior Jets” middle school program on the Encinal campus next year and three said the district should proceed with its offer to house the Alameda Community Learning Center, which has sat on the Encinal campus for 18 years, at Wood Middle School.

The workshop was set up to allow Junior Jets boosters to have a voice in the discussion about the proposed move, which has pitted Wood and ACLC staff and families who oppose the move against district leaders who have said there’s nowhere else for the charter to go. Junior Jets boosters, meanwhile, took umbrage with what they perceived as some parents’ statements challenging the program.

“We will be ready to launch. We are excited to welcome our Junior Jets,” said Encinal High vice principal Tracy Allegrotti, who was upset about statements she said some made at a February 12 school board meeting that challenged the program.

The Junior Jets program was originally envisioned as a worst-case scenario if voters didn’t approve a school parcel tax, Assistant Superintendent Sean McPhetridge said. But teachers, school and community leaders came to embrace it as an opportunity to boost students’ college and career readiness by reducing the number of school-to-school transitions they would face and giving students more time with the same group of teachers.

Some educators and community leaders who spoke Tuesday said they saw the school as a traditional option families lost when Chipman Middle School closed and was replaced by the Academy of Alameda charter, and as something unique for the West End, where some residents feel they’ve been continually shortchanged in favor of residents in wealthier segments of the Island.

“I’m really tired of the West End getting the short end of the stick. We have rights and we need to see some equality here,” said Vicki Smith, who has worked for the school district since 1994. Smith accused ACLC’s leaders of denying entry to homeless students and said the school lacks diversity, a charge one of the school’s leaders denied.

ACLC’s educators and families said the charter was designed by school district leaders as a “school within a school” at Encinal and that their program remains connected to the high school through sports, clubs and classes. And they’re concerned about the impacts a move could have on that.

“I feel a connection between Encinal and ACLC students. This move could separate the strong relationship that students built,” ACLC student Patrick Melendez said.

They and others asked the board to come up with a compromise that blunts the potential impact of the proposed move on ACLC and Wood students – and also, to help tamp down some of the divisiveness the move seems to have stirred.

“I have no confidence in leadership that sets up such a divisive issue. I think we, as parents, as teachers, we can come up with a solution that is a compromise, that is not divisive,” said Jane Grimaldi, a parent with a student at Wood.

The proposed move has ignited Wood parents’ fears that district leaders intend to close the school, though they have said that’s not the case.

District administrators said they have been talking to ACLC’s leadership about the move since May 2011 and that both groups looked for other options for relocating ACLC, in vain. Jim Nations, a parent who serves on the charter’s board and is also a Realtor said he has been trying to help the school find a new location for five years, but hasn’t had any luck.

The school’s leaders had looked at the former Miller Elementary School site on Singleton Avenue, which the district abandoned after learning it would need to pay $400,000 for new water pipes to stay, and also the former St. Barnabas School. Neither was available.

“There really isn’t just anything available in Alameda,” Nations said.

Paul Bentz of Community Learning Centers Inc., the parent body for ACLC and the Nea Community Learning Center, said he thought the district had enough classrooms at Encinal to accommodate the school, though district staff said that’s not the case. Student Services chief Kirsten Zazo said many of the school’s classrooms are too small to accommodate a full class load, and weren’t counted.

“I have looked at this, I have looked at this with Mr. Bentz, I have looked at this with many, many people over the course of the last 3 years, and there is not enough space for all of us to exist on this campus,” Zazo said.

Trustee Barbara Kahn asked whether the district could place portables on the Encinal campus as some parents had requested, a choice Trustee Trish Spencer supported. But other board members said they didn’t want to pay the $1 million or more district staffers said the portables would cost.

Trustees Mike McMahon and Margie Sherratt said that ultimately, their primary responsibility as board members is to students enrolled at the district’s schools, though Kahn noted that Wood is one of those schools.

“As an AUSD board member, my primary commitment is to the AUSD schools,” said Sherratt, who said the district should proceed with the Jets and the ACLC move proposal as planned. “As hard as it is for me to look at ACLC and say that, that is where my commitment has to be.”

The district will continue to negotiate over space offers to three Alameda charter schools over the next several months. The charters' leaders have until March 1 to respond to the district's offer letters, and the district must submit final offers on April 1. The charters have until May 1 to accept or reject the offers, and the school board signs off on agreements with the charters after that.