Rejected by Portland district, group's plan for Southwest center gets second life
by: DeNISE FARWELL, Southwest Charter backers David Smith (left) and Miriam Lea got good news last week when a state board voted 5-0 to sponsor the school.

A year and a half after the Portland school board decided not to sponsor them, backers of a new K-6 charter school for Southwest Portland have won a rare victory - sponsorship by the Oregon State Board of Education.

'We're just elated,' said David Smith, a longtime proponent of the Southwest Charter School and a member of the school's board of directors. 'We're really, really thrilled.'

The state board approval means that Southwest Charter will open this fall, in one of three or four possible locations in Southwest Portland. And that school leaders now have a lot of work to do by the end of this summer.

'We've spent two years working persistently and hard,' Smith said. 'Now we have to work really, really intensively for about four months. We have about four and a half months where basically we have to go all-out.'

Many of the organizers of the school - and some of the parents who are planning to send their children to school there - were involved with the Portland district's former Smith Elementary School in Southwest Portland. The district shut Smith in a round of school closures two years ago, in large part because of its relatively low enrollment, in the low 200s.

After parents of the school's students lost their fight to avoid Smith Elementary's closure, some of them began considering creating a charter school - even eventually applying to the district to use the Smith Elementary School building.

But in November 2005, the school board rejected the Southwest Charter's application for district sponsorship.

Southwest Charter proponents want the school, which added grades 7 and 8 by its third year, to focus on 'place-based learning.' Students will 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.

But school district and school board leaders said that the curriculum that school proponents detailed in their application was weak and not well enough developed for the school to be a success.

Oregon Department of Education staff members, however, read the same charter school application differently. They recommended that the state board agree to sponsor the school, which the state's eight-year-old charter school law allows as a kind of appeal of a rejection by a local school district.

The state board voted 5-0 last week to sponsor Southwest Charter for a three-year charter, making it only the third charter school sponsored by the state board. There are more than 60 charter schools in Oregon, the rest being sponsored by local school districts.

Charter schools get state money to operate, but are free from much of the regulation that governs traditional public schools.

Smith said that with the state approval, school leaders now would be settling on a top administrator for the school.

School leaders also will be finalizing a lease for one of the four buildings throughout Southwest they've been considering, Smith said. He declined to be more specific on the possible locations, other than saying school leaders are still interested in leasing the former Smith Elementary building on Southwest 52nd Avenue - which is still vacant.

School district leaders have rejected previous offers from charter school proponents because they believe the district can generate more lease revenue from the building than what the charter school proponents are offering.

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