Prospect of closing Teach Elementary draws crowd to district meeting

kleslie@thetribunenews.comFebruary 6, 2013 

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect names for two speakers; they are Allison Graves and Colt Laurie.

Parents and educators from Teach Elementary School support it as a unique educational experience, even as San Luis Obispo school district trustees review closing the program because of overcrowding.

At a crowded San Luis Coastal Unified School District board meeting Tuesday night, speakers during the three-hour-long session attempted to illustrate why Teach, an accelerated-learning program for students in fourth through sixth grades, should not be closed.

One mother shared her son's previous inability to focus in class, and subsequent discipline problems, until he transferred to Teach.

"He excelled (at Teach)," she said. "We weren't going to the principal's office every month. We went to parent-teacher conferences like everyone else."

Others spoke out against allegations of the school’s elitism. Allison Graves of Morro Bay said she doesn't see anything elitist about Teach — it was simply the best fit for her son.

"None of us are saying our kids are the smartest kids in the district," she said. "I don't see why it is labeled as elitist or discriminatory to have a school where kids can choose. ... The things that my son is achieving are beyond what I ever imagined, and that's because it fits his needs."

Many asked why the board was choosing to move so fast on such a complicated issue — the idea was first proposed Jan. 15, and a vote is expected by Feb. 19.

Trustee Kathryn Eisendrath-Rogers criticized how the issue was handled, saying the district’s public statement concerned overcrowding, when in fact the matter was a philosophical difference over the value of Teach.

Closing Teach, which opened as an alternative program for advanced students in 1980, came up as a possible solution for overcrowding on the shared campus of Teach and Bishop's Peak Elementary.

According to the district, 522 students currently attend the two schools at the campus. Enrollment could increase to approximately 580 in 2013-14. This has led to a number of traffic and safety concerns in the neighborhood surrounding Bishop’s Peak, according to the superintendent's report.

The report suggested several ways of fixing the overcrowding issue, such as changing bus schedules and reducing open enrollment, but the most controversial was cutting the Teach program, or moving Teach to another campus.

It was the closure idea that drew dozens of parents, educators and even current Teach students to the meeting.

Throughout the presentations, several children sat in the front row holding handmade posters proclaiming "Save Teach" in marker, and neon fliers and a bag of candy made the rounds through the packed room. A video by fifth-grader Lauren Ramirez featuring Teach students, both current and alumni, opened the comment segment of the meeting, and generated a hearty round of applause. One fourth-grader, who introduced himself as Colt, ventured to the microphone during public comments.

"Last year at Del Mar, I had great teachers, but I was just bored," said the boy, whose full name is Colt Laurie. "When I came to Teach, all of that was fixed, and I hope you just take this into consideration and keep Teach open."

Also supporting Teach was one of its former teachers, Val Wright. "I would suggest to you to keep the dream (former superintendent Bill) Newman had. He had tremendous vision. And I would suggest to you to not only keep the dream, but expand it, and make it even better."

Wright was a teacher at Teach in 1991. Now he teaches at Laguna Middle School.

Adrienne Allebe, an instructor at Cal Poly and Cuesta, was one of Wright's students who also addressed the board.

"When I found out they might close down Teach, I got extremely sad. I was in disbelief. For me, it was one of the highlights of my entire education. I think if anything, Teach should be expanded. I think it should be a K-12 school."

Though the majority of speakers were adamantly in favor of keeping the school open, several spoke out against the program.

San Luis Coastal elementary director Amy Shields said she did not think that Teach was necessary for the success of the district.

"I believe it is great teaching that matters," she said. "More than the school, more than the principal, more than the director, it is great teaching that helps our students. ... The current model of an isolated school is not only obsolete, but it serves to divide us, rather than bring us together."

Several parents of children attending Bishop’s Peak also spoke about the program as a divider at the schools.

"I am very concerned about my child's social, emotional well-being, as he approaches fourth grade," Nicole Bowler said of her son, who is a first-grader at Bishop’s Peak. "While this separation may bring debatable benefit to some students, their counterparts are left with the impression that they are not smart enough or good enough to attend class with their peers."

Any student can apply to enroll in Teach; selections are made through a lottery system because of the overcrowding.

Bowler said the separation wasn't a positive influence and therefore she supported closing Teach.

Following public comment, board member Jim Quesenberry agreed with Bowler that the separation of students at Teach was a negative aspect of the program, citing the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education on "separate but equal" institutions. Quesenberry also asked assembled parents to consider putting more time into helping the program.

"I ask you, if you think this program should be supported and expanded, what you have done to do that?" he said.

The comment drew groans from many of the parents. “That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” murmured one.

Eisendrath-Rogers took the opposite side and called for any discussion of dissolving the Teach program to be removed from any future proposals on overcrowding at the campus.

Eisendrath-Rogers also criticized the manner in which the school board attempted to solve the issue, saying people were tricked into thinking the topic was overcrowding when it is in fact a "philosophical difference of opinion among the board members and the district" concerning the merit and methodology of programs like Teach.

"I'm personally disappointed in our process that we've used," she said. "It's not transparent, and I don't agree with it."

The board’s next meeting will be Feb. 19 at Laguna Middle School, a change in location from Los Osos Middle School to better accommodate both coastal and city residents of the district.

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