Spurned charter school may land in San Miguel

A technology-oriented charter school previously rejected by Paso Robles could be headed for San Miguel — if the school superintendent there can convince his board that the charter will provide a boost to the underperforming schools there.

“I’m at a loss to see where there’s a downside to us,” said Curt Dubost, superintendent of the San Miguel Joint Unified School District, who will recommend the board approve the charter during a meeting tonight.

Just over a year ago, a group of well organized parents, educators and community members formally petitioned the Paso Robles Unified School District to approve a charter school they had formulated. The charter would have been part of the district, but with its own governing body. And the school would have allowed for more flexibility with curriculum, focusing on technology.

The proposed charter would provide each student with access to devices like the iPod Touch and laptops, which could be used for Internet research, while special apps could be used to expedite feedback on classroom assignments.

The Paso Robles school board, though, unanimously rejected the proposal in February, citing a need for more details on curriculum and funding and noting a lack of adequate facilities.

“Our plan had been to resubmit to them last August,” said Jill Ogorsolka, president of the charter’s board of directors. “And then we heard from San Miguel in June.”

One of Paso Robles’ concerns — that the charter didn’t have adequate facilities — was not an issue in San Miguel.

“We have a vacant wing of classrooms,” Dubost said.

Before the Lillian Larsen School building was constructed, Dubost said, the district had anticipated a population surge because San Miguel had more affordable housing planned. But amid a poor economy, the housing market stalled, and enrollment — now at 360 — stagnated.

“There are six classrooms that are basically vacant here that are pretty much a perfect fit for the charter school,” said Dubost, who was not superintendent when the projections were made.

Today some of those classrooms are used for book storage, an extra music room and an office for a consultant.

The proposed charter — to be named Almond Acres Charter Academy — would eventually house students in grades K-8 and include 428 students by its fifth year.

If approved, the charter would open next fall with 158 students in grades K-6.

“So that’s roughly seven teachers that we’d be looking to hire,” Ogorsolka said.

The charter would receive grant money specifically designated for charters, she said — roughly $1 million the first year.

The district would get some extra money from the charter, including rent. But, Dubost said, mostly he foresees a benefit in the district’s performance.

The influx of involved parents, he said, would help strengthen a district he admits has had a reputation for underperforming. While Almond Acres would be separate from Lillian Larsen, resources would be shared, and teachers would collaborate.

“It just helps our reputation overall,” Dubost said, noting that the charter proponents have added more details to their proposal since Paso rejected it.

Many of the district’s students are English learners (the student population is 66 percent Latino), and many of the children come from low-income households. While the district’s test scores have made significant improvements, it is in program improvement, a designation that requires test scores to improve two consecutive years.

“We have a lot of needy kids,” Dubost said.

The school board will take public input tonight and could vote to take action. If it doesn’t, it would have to within 60 days.

Either way, Ogorsolka said, the charter would be on track to open next fall if approved.

“We have plenty of time to get into the funding cycle,” she said.