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West Linn district says no to charter school proposal

School board rejects language immersion school after 4-1 vote

In a vote that surprised no one, the West Linn-Wilsonville School Board denied a charter school proposal during its Aug. 1 meeting.

The vote was 4-1, with Board Member Kristen Keswick as the sole member in favor of approval.

The proposal was for a K-8 Spanish immersion school called The Language Academy. Although the board and district staff said they support dual language programs, they thought there were numerous holes and problems with the proposal.

However, that does not mean the end of the charter's future but instead represents just one step in the long process of getting a charter launched.

Charter schools are nonprofit and privately governed but need district or state sponsorship.

The Language Academy's Board Chair Brenna Burke said the board will continue to pursue the charter and wants to provide an equitable program for both communities. She said they are open to working with the district and the school board.

'We are trying to invite collaboration with the district,' Burke said.

When the school district cut its own language immersion program last year due to budget constraints, a group of parents and educators organized a committee to replace the loss of the program.

The goal of the Language Academy was to initially open this fall with a maximum of 72 kindergartners, adding grades in subsequent years up to eighth grade, with other languages introduced over time.

The district originally received a proposal for the academy in September 2010. Since then, the district and the charter board have been working to attain all of the criteria mandated by the state.

The areas of concern by the district staff and board included financial management, staff leadership, curriculum design, transportation, nutrition services, short- and long-term facility needs, and the impact on the district budget.

'We have absolutely taken this very, very seriously,' said Superintendent Bill Rhoades of the application process.

He said the state lays out a process of criteria charters must meet, including development, design and implementation.

'It is designed to allow the production of high-quality programs,' he said. 'The processes are designed for lots of checkpoints and revisions.'

Rhoades questioned how the charter would handle attrition in the program and requested more clarification on the role of the charter board. He also questioned how the needs of low achieving students would be met.

Perhaps the biggest concern is the money the district would lose in student reimbursement. For every student who goes to the charter instead of a West Linn-Wilsonville school, the district loses funding. Rhoades said that if the charter opened with 72 students as slated, it would equate to a $250,000 to $300,000 loss to the district, 'putting the district in position of staff or day reductions.'

Although the application was denied as it stood, the board repeatedly declared the value of dual language and immersion programs.

'You folks are passionate about education. Your value in our district is immense,' said School Board member Keith Steele. 'I don't question the value of dual language programs. I think it's an important part of a portfolio of education programs.'

Keswick expressed her appreciation for the charter board's diligence in keeping the process moving. She mentioned how she learned Japanese at a later age and how much knowing two languages has affected her life. She added that she believed having a second language curriculum is an important part of making future world leaders.

Board Member Cheri Zimmerman also acknowledged the importance of dual language programs, but said the Language Academy proposal 'has what I consider to be major issues.'

'There's a lot of work ahead to make this the world-class program we want it to be,' said Board Chair Dale Hoogestrat.

Adding a monkey wrench into the charter proposal is the possibility of the district restoring its immersion program in 2012 with the opening of a new primary school.

Deborah Arthur addressed the board during the public comment time and expressed her preference for an in-district language program, questioning if the district could support both a charter school and an in-house language program.

'I'd like to continue to make our public schools the very best they can be and not break off in charters,' Arthur said.

The charter board has another opportunity to resubmit its proposal to the school board, with no time constraints. After submission, the board has 20 days to act on it. If denied again, the charter can then ask for state sponsorship.

Another action the board took during the Aug. 1 meeting was to pass a motion to investigate and make recommendations as to the feasibility of implementing district dual language programs and a comprehensive world language program.