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Charter fans keep the faith

District snubs charter school, but state smiles on it
by: DENISE FARWELL, After a meeting for the Southwest Charter School, Miriam Lea reads with son Joseph, 8. All that stands between the school opening its doors in the fall is state approval, which could come as early as next month.

Two years ago, parents of students at Southwest Portland's Smith Elementary School armed themselves with school achievement statistics and enrollment numbers and population forecasts, and worked passionately to persuade Portland school district officials not to close the well-regarded Smith.

The district closed the school anyway.

Now, some of the parents of former Smith Elementary are back.

And they, along with other interested parents, appear ready to claim a victory after two years worth of refocused passion. And to give the district a bit of a comeuppance at the same time.

The parents are about to create a charter elementary school in their own vision, and to create one that will compete with the district for public school students in Southwest Portland.

The approval for Southwest Charter School - which may happen as early as next month - will not be coming from the Portland school board, which rejected the parents' application to have the district sponsor the charter school.

Instead, the Oregon State Board of Education will consider April 19 whether it wants to take the rare move of sponsoring the charter school itself. It would be only the third charter school the state has decided to sponsor in the eight-year history of charter schools in Oregon.

Oregon Department of Education staff and state schools Superintendent Susan Castillo are recommending that the board sponsor Southwest Charter. Board approval seems likely, which would mean the new charter school would open this fall - in a location school leaders have yet to determine.

'We feel really excited and positive about it,' said David Smith, a previous Smith Elementary parent and member of the board of the proposed charter school. 'It's been two-plus years of work, and this will be the threshold for us. It's really the green light to begin pursuing our dreams.'

The long development of Southwest Charter is partly a story about parents taking a district's school-closure decision and turning it on the district's ear.

School proponents believe that many former Smith Elementary students will attend the new charter school if it's approved. And district officials have acknowledged their fears, in deciding against sponsoring the school, that the school could take students away from the district.

But Southwest Charter also is a story about requirements in the state's charter school law - and how two sets of educators can look at the same description of a school's curriculum, and come to completely opposite conclusions.

Southwest Charter proponents want the school to focus on 'place-based learning' - where students learn less often in classrooms and more often in their community or in the natural environment outside of the school building.

The focus and curriculum would be somewhat similar to the district's popular Sunnyside Environmental School, in Southeast Portland, or the Metropolitan Learning Center, a K-12 school in Northwest Portland.

But in considering Southwest Charter's application to the Portland district for sponsorship, district officials - and, later, school board leaders - said they believed Southwest Charter's proposed curriculum was weak and not well-developed.

'Of concern to the Board's Education Options Committee is the completeness of the curriculum,' Dilafruz Williams and Sonja Henning, co-chairwomen of a school board subcommittee, wrote in a letter to the full board recommending that the board deny Southwest Charter's application for sponsorship.

Various district documents detail other concerns about the school's application. But the reservation cited most often - along with the belief that the school would not be sufficiently different from other Portland district schools - was the curriculum.

Those were the two reasons the school board formally gave Southwest Charter proponents in denying their application.

Charter schools denied sponsorship by their local districts have the option to appeal to the state board of education for sponsorship. And when officials with the Oregon Department of Education considered Southwest Charter's application - which was not revised after the Portland rejection - they had no problem with its proposed curriculum.

'The appendix outlines the curriculum well,' education department officials wrote in recommending that the state board approve Southwest Charter for sponsorship.

When education department officials read through an application, and believe all its components meet the requirements of state law, 'it's hard to say, 'We can't recommend this,' if everything is meeting (the requirements),' said Margaret Bates, an official with the department of education who works with charter school applications. 'It wouldn't pass any sort of credible test - if you look and see everything meets, and then say, 'No, we're not going to recommend approval.' '

District's guidelines touted

Some charter school advocates have criticized the Portland district for being too demanding of charter school applications, saying they're attempting to minimize the number of charter schools that exist in Portland.

Of the 25 applications for charter school sponsorship since 1999, the Portland school board has approved 11 and rejected 10. The remaining four charter school proponents withdrew their applications before the district ruled on them.

The 10 rejections are more than all other districts in the state combined.

Even so, the Portland district now has seven charter schools operating within its boundaries and approved by the Portland board - also many more than any other state school district.

'I think we have very good guidelines in terms of reviewing charters - to ensure that charters will be successful once they are approved,' said Portland school board member Williams, who is a professor of educational policy at Portland State University's Graduate School of Education, 'because it is a big undertaking and a lot of responsibility. So we take that seriously.'

Proponents are 'mystified'

Southwest Charter proponents say they don't believe the concerns cited by school district officials are justified.

They cite, among other strengths of the school's application, the background and expertise of members of the Southwest Charter board. Board members include a physician and professor at Oregon Health and Science University and an educational consultant who also is a former Beaverton school district principal.

'I've been mystified by the opposition we've seemed to face from the district,' said Portland lawyer Ray Streinz, who is chairman of the Southwest Charter board.

But Streinz and Smith talk less these days about the Portland district and more about their belief that the state board will give their school the approval they've sought for two years.

The school will have class sizes of 21 to 23 students, Streinz said, and when 'you walk through the school, you won't see kids in classrooms, mostly. They're going to be out in the community and in the schoolyard doing things, to try to keep them involved and interested.'

The outside-the-classroom learning won't be appropriate for every student, Streinz said. But Southwest Portland has needed more options like the charter school for years, both Streinz and Smith said.

Streinz said, 'I think we're going to be offering an alternative that, for some kids, will really let them thrive.'

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Disrict content to let buildings sit

Almost two years after Smith Elementary School was closed in the spring of 2005, the building in Southwest Portland remains empty - unsold, unused and unleased by the Portland school district.

The same situation exists with the former Applegate Elementary School building in North Portland - also closed after the spring of 2005.

And the school district has no current plans to immediately reuse, sell or rent the additional three school buildings - Clarendon and Rose City Park elementary schools and Kellogg Middle School - that will be emptied after this spring.

Portland Public Schools property development manager Kerry Hampton said district officials are looking for funds to support more pre-kindergarten programs, and will be analyzing how the mergers of several elementary and middle schools into K-8 programs affect the need for buildings throughout the district.

'At this point, it's time to step back and do some planning, both short range and long range,' Hampton said. 'That's what we're going to do with these buildings - just hold here until we have a better look at where we want to go and where the trends are going.'

But that 'holding' will mean several buildings won't be used or generating revenue for at least the near future. Hampton said if district officials decided to lease out any of the four, leases probably wouldn't start until at least the fall of 2008.

The district has tried to lease Applegate and Smith, and has received offers. But all of the offers - including from some former Smith parents who are part of a group proposing a charter school in Southwest Portland - were far below what the school district believes it can get in rent, Hampton said.

Hampton said school district officials want to rent the buildings for $9 to $12 per square foot per year - which is roughly what De La Salle North Catholic High School is paying for the former Kenton Elementary School building in North Portland.

For Smith, $9 per square foot per year would amount to about $340,000. Each of the several offers for Smith were far below that, Hampton said.

Supporters of the proposed Southwest Charter School said they offered the district about $90,000 per year over 10 years for the building.

'I would consider someone who offers me less than 25 percent of market (rate) eminently rejectable,' Hampton said, referring to the group's first-year rent offer of $65,000.

Hampton said it makes more sense for the district to maintain the buildings at a very basic level and wait for better offers.

In the meantime, however, the buildings sit empty, generating no revenue.

David Smith, a board member of Southwest Charter and parent of a former Smith student, said district officials might be overly optimistic on the buildings' rental values.

He pointed to the offers that came in far below $9 per square foot.

'The ultimate answer is let the market determine it,' Smith said. 'And the market has determined that $9 to $12 per square foot for some of these buildings is too high.'

- Todd Murphy