SLO magnet school, Teach Elementary, may close doors

School that serves gifted youngsters is at capacity; some argue about the merits of a school criticized as elitist

acornejo@thetribunenews.comFebruary 2, 2013 

A San Luis Obispo magnet school for academically accelerated fourth-to-sixth-grade students faces possible closure despite vocal opposition from parents of pupils attending there.

Teach Elementary School, run by San Luis Coastal Unified School District for more than three decades, has long attracted high-achieving students. But the district is considering closing it in part because of a capacity limit at the campus where Teach is located.

The school board will discuss Teach’s future Tuesday. Options include keeping it, phasing it out to allow current students to finish their time there, or closing it altogether and sending those students to Bishop’s Peak Elementary. The board will decide the school’s fate Feb. 19.

Teach, which has 155 students, offers accelerated courses and specialized electives taught by volunteers.

The debate about closing the school is twofold. Philosophically, some school administrators question whether it is appropriate to provide such an opportunity to some students in the district, but not all. Enrollment is limited to a lottery system because of the campus size.

There is also a space issue. Teach Elementary has shared a campus with Bishop’s Peak since 2001. A growing number of students enrolled in both schools, 522 total, puts the campus near capacity and causes a traffic nuisance daily for nearby neighborhoods.

The district and the parents trying to save Teach are now embroiled in a bitter fight over its future.

“It makes zero sense to get rid of it,” said Helen Sipsas, a parent of a fifth-grader.

Costly alternatives

During the school’s history, some have argued that Teach could be considered elitist because it offers special opportunities to high-achieving students that are not offered at all elementary schools.

“Today our class sizes are as large as anyone else’s, and the school is open to everyone,” Sipsas said. “We don’t have more teachers or special teachers; the only advantage is that students are taught at an accelerated pace. Parents teach the electives. We are creating our own opportunity here.”
Teach students consistently post among the highest results on standardized tests for any elementary school in the county.

Concerned parents, including Sipsas, have inundated the school board with letters imploring the seven trustees not to close the school.

But the alternative may prove to be too costly — especially in light of the more than $6 million budget deficit facing the district in the coming 2013-14 school year.

Adding four portable classrooms to the campus to accommodate future growth could cost more than $1 million. Likewise, moving the school to another site would cost more than $1 million, according to district officials.

Parent Marco Rizzo opted to send his daughter to Teach Elementary when he noticed that she wasn’t bringing home enough homework.

Once a strong student, she had started doodling in class and was not focusing on the teacher.

“My thought was that the school she was at was not challenging enough or the right fit because it was not engaging her,” Rizzo said. “At Teach, she really connected and she was made to work hard.”

Rizzo has two younger daughters whom he hopes to also enroll at Teach Elementary.

“I think the school doesn’t quite fit the puzzle or long-term goal of what the school district thinks education should be,” Rizzo said. “They are using the excuse of being over capacity as a way to cut a program that has been around for a long time.”

Different type of school

Enrollment at Teach is not limited to high-achieving students. But those who struggle academically typically do not sign up for the program.

The school has no English learners enrolled and only a small number of students enrolled in special education.

The only other magnet school operated by the district is Pacheco Elementary in San Luis Obispo, which offers dual immersion, teaching students in both English and Spanish.

“(Teach is) a unique type of magnet school because it is pulling gifted or high-achieving students from throughout the district to one site as opposed to a magnet school pulling all types of students into a school,” said Assistant Superintendent Rick Robinett. “The question has been raised if that is the type of magnet school we want. Is that OK or not OK?”

Robinett contends that Pacheco Elementary is different because it is a kindergarten-to-sixth-grade school and caters to both high- and low-achieving students.

Teach Elementary, when created, was started specifically to cater to high achievers who were not being challenged enough in traditional classrooms. Those students were recommended by teachers for the school.

However, that process changed in the mid-1990s to allow for open enrollment.

Teach’s popularity continues to grow. Enrollment grew from 71 students in 2008 to 156 today.

The majority of students in the program come from Bishop’s Peak, followed by a large percentage of students from Del Mar Elementary in Morro Bay. 

Now that the campus is near its capacity, fewer students from outside the enrollment area are being allowed in.

“The school is really contrary to the notion of equal access to education for kids,” said Walt Millar, school board president. “I have yet to be shown what are they doing different than across the hallway at Bishop’s Peak or at all of our sites. And I feel that unless there is some significant reason for us to support a program that is substantially different/better, then it is really contrary to the district’s initiatives.” 

Millar said that because of limited space issues, it has come down to luck if students can attend Teach.

“I need someone to show me what the program is supposedly doing and what parents are worried about saving that we are not doing at other school sites.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

Meeting Tuesday

The San Luis Coastal School Board will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the District Administration Complex, Room J2, 1500 Lizzie St. in San Luis Obispo.

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