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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Point Dume Charter School Petition Attracts Advocates and Detractors

• Supporters Greatly Outnumber Opponents at Public Hearing


Advocates and the lead presenters of the petition that would transform Point Dume Marine Science Elementary in to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s first charter school had an opportunity to present their proposal to the board of education at a meeting in Malibu on Thursday.
For the first time, opposition was voiced by a small number of speakers, and a critical questioning campaign, including letters to the editor of the Malibu Surfside News, appears to be developing.
The City Council Chambers were packed with more that 140 people—most in support of the petition. Malibu Mayor Jefferson Wagner, who presented the school board with a letter of support for the charter petition signed by the Malibu City Council, reminded the enthusiastic audience to wave their hands as a show of support rather than applaud during the lengthy hearing, which featured approximately 40 speakers.
Lead petitioners Ali Thonson and Robyn Ross gave a joint presentation at the start of public comments. “One of changes look forward to as charter school is more diversity,” they said. Attendance at the school is currently limited to Point Dume. The charter, they explained, could attract more diversity by recruiting outside the district.
The petitioners reminded the board that nearly half of last year’s Point graduating class—25 children—left the district, their parents preferring not to send them to Malibu Middle School for sixth grade. “ We think [charter] is a viable solution that positively addresses declining enrollment,” they said.
“We’ve met with [PTA President] Wendy Sidley and [Malibu High School principal] Mark Kelly. We are open to creatively sharing resources. As parents of current and future MHS students vested interest in district schools. We are confident the petition not only met but exceeded the requirements. Only five findings can support denial.
“Become our authorizer. By authorizing you ensure collaboration. We want to continue to work with the district.”
The lead petitioners were supported by their legal council, financial advisor and consultant and teachers from the school.
Margo Dunn, one of the original teachers who came to the Point Dume school from Juan Cabrillo Elementary School, when the Point Dume campus reopened in 1994, outlined the school’s history.
It opened in 1967 as a K-6 school, she said. Then, 12 years later the population declined, and it closed. Parents from the two schools were pitted against each other
In the 1990s, class size began to grow. The school reopened as a K-5 satellite of Juan Cabrillo, with a marine science emphasis. “We had no phones, bells, cafeteria or even furniture in all of our classrooms. in 1997 when [the district] reinstated Point Dume. We wanted to make sure the marine science curriculum is preserved,” Dunn said. “Fears have resurfaced. It’s imperative that all Malibu schools stay open.”
“Every morning I drive over Kanan on my way to work. I see former PDMSS families driving the other way over the hill,” said Point Dume teacher Chris Cullem. “Why did they leave? Our aim as a charter has grown beyond just saving our school. [The teachers] struggled and even sometimes battled. Despite, or maybe because of these struggles, the process has been a positive one.” Cullem said that the teachers contributed to all 16 points of the charter proposal.
Susan Baltrushes, a teacher at Juan Cabrillo, expressed concern that the charter would pull students away from her school. “[We are a] very small community, very concerned about diversity. [Point Dume needs] a certain number of students to be a success, and we wonder where they’ll come from. Juan Cabrillo? Point Dume does not have the same ethnic and economic diversity, very few minorities and disabilities. We fear it will drain our student population. We fear a preferred school. Charter is not a good choice.”
“Although I understand that the parents of Point Dume are worried that their school may close, I have concerns...I worry that some students will want to go to Point Dume from Juan Cabrillo and Webster,” said Juan Cabrillo parent Jill Matthews. She also expressed concern over what she called the sixth grade component. “I suggest offering K-6 at all Malibu schools, or all district schools,” she said.
“While we do need a certain number of students to be successful, we have no outreach plans,” said Robyn Ross. “One of our big concerns and goals is to increase diversity, that’s going to mean reaching out to other areas [not other Malibu schools]. We will address that. It’s a goal for us. We are quite limited where we can draw students from now.”
“I would like to say that I am thrilled that there is a plan to keep sixth graders on an elementary school campus,” Diane Glazer, a district parent who said she is also a licensed therapist and teacher, said. “We ask them to grow up too quickly. It is so much to their benefit if we can leave them on an elementary school campus.”
Malibu Middle School teacher Ari Jacobs expressed job loss concerns. “I’m concerned about unintended consequences,” he said. “Fewer students coming to MHS, the need to reduce staff by two-to-three teachers.”
Several speakers countered Jacobs’ argument, saying that Malibu High School could potentially regain some of the numerous students who leave the district after fifth grade for private schools that offer a more secure environment and zero tolerance for drugs and bullying.
Special education advocate and district parent Laureen Sills spoke in favor of the petition, addressing the special education component. “The people putting together the charter’s special education did due diligence. Charter schools that are public schools must be treated fairly and the same manner. Children with disabilities must be served in the same manner.”
Malibu City Councilmember John Sibert recalled the previous closure of Point Dume school and the impact that it had on the community. “I’m speaking not as council member, but as a resident of the Point since ’85. [The school] is a unique place and I don’t want to lose it. It’s changed the neighborhood. I don’t want to lose that. I’m very much in support.”
Councilmember Laura Rosenthal indicated she supported the charter, but recommended that the school remain K-5, saying her sons would not have wished to remain in elementary school for another year. “I really hear what Cabrillo teachers and parents are saying. Change is hard and change is scary, but change is good. Please keep it in our district. Keep continuity going.”
“If the board had intimated that Juan Cabrillo or Webster would be closed I would be in their position,” said MHS PTA president Wendy Sidley, whose husband Mike Sidley is an opponent of the charter plan. “My concern is with sixth grade. In secondary school it means more than just the loss of teachers, it means programs changed. Keep sixth grade at Malibu High School. It’s the best thing about our campus that the middle school kids and high school kids work together. It implies that this a little scary but it’s not.
“One thing that has surprised me has been some hostility, vitriol and rumor in Malibu and Santa Monica,” said Point Dume parent and petition advocate Karen Farrer. “Its counter productive. Please don’t do that. Yes, we are proposing to do something new, It might be a little scary…[but] we would prefer to work under SMMUSD, not another authorizer.”
The debate reminded some longtime observers of the bitter fight over the closure of the Point Dume school in 1980.
“The Point Dume parents were powerless last time,” a longtime resident told The News. “This is a very different situation. The charter supporters are well organized, have money and legal expertise, and determination. If they’re forced to take the petition to the county, they will, and it will b the district’s loss.”