Despite a willingness to soften strict enrollment criteria and a deferment to the Juneau School Board on other issues, the proposed elementary STEM charter school failed to get the votes.
More than 40 members of the community listened to hours of public comment, input from the City and Borough of Juneau legal advisors and other district personnel before the board took it to a vote. In the end, only two of seven members were convinced an elementary school focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics was ready to launch.
“I don’t think this is the solution for today,” said Brian Holst, the newly assigned board president. He added that considering a magnet school in an already functioning elementary school could be a better proposal for the future.
The proposed school, working under the title Summit STEM School, was born about a year and a half ago when a group of local educators decided to do something about student achievement gaps thought to be based on the income of the students’ homes. Poorer students typically do worse on state assessments compared to others, according to data by the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development.
Legal guidance on this matter, however, revealed the STEM school’s focus on students from low-income families wouldn’t hold up in court.
CBJ attorney Amy Mead previously told the board maintaining any type of diversity, wealth or race, is a separation from the purpose of a charter school and the hopeful founders would have to reassess their plans.
In September, Nancy Norman, an education consultant working with Summit, said the charter school proponents were determined not to sway from their goal of at least a 50 percent free or reduced lunch student population.
Marty Dean, an Auke Bay Elementary teacher and supporter of the charter school, presented a different possibility to the board Tuesday. Realizing any lottery for a the charter school would have to be random and there would be no guarantee their target student population would be achieved, the school’s backers were willing to move forward if the board approved.
With that issue seemingly resolved, new concerns centered around where to put the charter school, which would consist of four classes for 80 students, inside of an existing Mendenhall Valley area school. Michelle Byer, principal at Riverbend Elementary School, said she learned Oct. 8 her school would house the charter school if it were approved. She, along with other community members, worried this didn’t provide enough time to consider the negative effects.
Camille Severance, a parent to two students at Riverbend, told the board during a public comment period the pace of the charter school’s creation was alarming. She also said she doubted the majority of parents at Riverbend knew what was going on.
“Why the rush,” Severance asked the board. “I recognize the prestige of being the first (elementary) STEM school in the state, but if the goal is to be successful and possibly a model for others, I feel that the board shouldn’t be pressured or rushed to think through the impact of this decision.”
Ten other community members spoke in opposition to the charter’s creation before the final vote, the largest crowd to appear in opposition since the charter school talks began in August.
Board member Barbara Thurston was surprised to learn that Riverbend school officials and parents were only now informed they could become home to the charter school.
“I didn’t know until today … Riverbend wasn’t part of discussion all along,” Thurston said. “It seems like a very poor … way to approach this.”
Despite concerns by the community that transparency was lacking, newly sworn in board member Josh Keaton said he believed the transition would not be as challenging as some thought, especially regarding the possibility of housing two different models of education under one roof.
“I think a lot of those concerns are just change,” Keaton said. “Change is uncomfortable, I don’t really strongly feel that there is going to be a drastic difference in the (behavior) of the STEM school kids related to Riverbend school kids.”
Emil “Robert” Mackey, the other newly sworn in member, was the other vote in favor of the charter school.
Mackey said he recognized the reality of what the STEM school could offer students in combination with a real parent-demand for its creation.
“The things the STEM charter school wants to achieve, we can’t do everywhere,” Mackey said. “There’s a sizable number of faculty in this district that are not going to want to put in an extra half hour to an hour a day and put in a sweat equity needed in order to achieve those goals.”
In the end, concerns surrounding the possibility of pulling too many students from the existing charter school and Title I schools created variables most board members did not want to chance.
Early in the meeting, Kimberly Homme, the district coordinator of federal funds, explained that a Title I status for schools in the Juneau School District is based on a minimum of 40 percent free or reduced lunch student body makeup. If too many students were pulled from one of the three Title I elementary schools, funds could be lost for a given school, along with base student allocation (BSA) funds. This year’s BSA is $5,880 per student.
When a student moves from one school to another, BSA and the Title I program funds “follow the student,” Homme said.
Considering an option that doesn’t pull students out of one school to move to another was something the board discussed after the ‘no’ votes came in. Board members said they still think the push for a STEM focus district-wide was something worth further consideration, some saying a magnet school might be a better fit for a future proposal.
Superintendent Mark Miller said starting from scratch with a magnet school in mind would likely take three or four years to get off the ground.
After the vote, Riverbend Principal Byer said people in the audience were already approaching her with the possibility of launching a magnet school at Riverbend, where diversity already exists.
“My heart is breaking for (the STEM supporters), I know how much work went into this,” she said. “But I really do feel strongly that this kind of program should be for all kids. All kids should get these opportunities and all kids should experience this. I would welcome working with the people who have worked so hard on these things.”
Other school board happenings
District Court Judge Philip Pallenberg swore in the newly elected board members Mackey and Keaton during Tuesday night’s meeting, as two outgoing members said their goodbyes.
Exiting members Phyllis Carlson and Destiny Sargeant received certificates of appreciation and cutting boards made by Thunder Mountain High School students as parting gifts. Carlson, who previously served as board president, said with tears in hey eyes she hoped board members continued to consider the needs of undeserved populations: “Be conscience of who we are leaving behind in moving forward.”
Holst’s appointment as president was the result of a 4-3 anonymous vote over returning board member Andi Story. Board members voted to continue Story’s role as vice president and Lisa Worl’s role as board clerk.