The Profiler: Charter school CEO Paul Bentz
The Profiler: Charter school CEO Paul Bentz
Community Learning Center Schools Inc.'s Paul Bentz is retiring. Photo by Chris Duffey.
Paul Bentz was a science teacher at Alameda High School when the call went out for five teachers to run a new school-within-a-school at Encinal High.
“I enjoyed what I was doing,” Bentz said. “But I was with 35 kids in class every day all day long, in a room built for 24. I thought, ‘There’s gotta be a better way to do education than this.’”
The school district had been working with the consulting firm Arthur Andersen to profile the graduates of the future, and to figure out what kind of schooling was needed to create them. The Arthur Andersen Community Learning Center was born in 1996 as a summer bridge program for students in grades 7-12, and Bentz was hired as one of the center’s first five facilitators.
Now Bentz, 63, is retiring as chief executive officer of Community Learning Center Schools Inc., the charter company he helped build in an effort to provide more school choices for families. The company runs the original Arthur Andersen school – now known as the Alameda Community Learning Center – and the Nea Community Learning Center, a K-12 school Bentz helped start in 2009.
“I basically decided parents in Alameda should be able to send kids to school where they wanted to,” Bentz said.
The University of California, Berkeley graduate, who came to the Bay Area after stints as a freight train brakeman and instructor for an outdoors school in Wyoming, was a part-timer during the years the idea for the school was germinating, spending the rest of his time recovering from a fire that destroyed his home and caring for his newborn son. But he attended one of the district’s information sessions about the new school and was intrigued by what he heard.
The plan for the school, which was started with $1.5 million from Arthur Andersen and another $300,000 from the school district, called for a “large, open environment” that replaced chalkboards and desks with state of the art technology that students would use in a largely self-directed learning voyage. Educational basics would be integrated into students’ exploration of subjects that ranged from digital video production to biotechnology; teachers would act more as consultants than “as a teleprompter,” an outline for the “Creative Learning Plaza” Bentz provided says.
While the ideas sounded good, their practical application was lacking and clashed with parents’ expectations of what a school should provide, Bentz recalled.
“It’s kind of like they threw us into the box with 150 kids and said, ‘Create the school of the future,’” Bentz said. “They didn’t have a plan for how kids were going to learn math, science, English and history. Originally, there were no classes at all.”
Bentz said the original plan for the school had students rotating through a score of modules where they would learn about subjects like desktop publishing, the Internet, pneumatics and electronics. After the first month of school, he said, parents were asking how their children would learn basics like algebra.
Fearing parents would leave the school, Bentz and the school’s other facilitators created a college-like seminar system where the basics would be taught. The system paved the way for the blended model of project-based learning that the school would ultimately provide.
“It swung over time, but it still exists,” Bentz said.
Arthur Andersen’s facilitators opted to convert the school into a charter in 2001, Bentz said, at the advice of a school board member who feared it could meet the same fate as other innovative school district programs that were falling under the budget axe. He said the school’s original charter was written by the district’s then-chief financial officer.
While ACLC’s facilitators came and went, Bentz stayed, eventually becoming the school’s lead facilitator.
“I liked the fact that there was an enormous amount of freedom to creatively try to reinvent the future of education,” Bentz said.
Parents decided that they also liked what Bentz was doing, and after the Alameda Community Learning Center opened enrollment for sixth graders, interest in the school boomed. He said the school, which has about 300 students and will graduate 17 this year, got five applications for every open spot.
Bentz said he wanted to open a second ACLC campus. But the backing the district once offered had dissolved into resistance to charter schools, he said, that some felt were draining badly needed dollars from the existing school system.
Instead, Bentz and others chose to start a new school, the Nea Community Learning Center, that would serve students in kindergarten through 12th grade – the school Arthur Andersen had originally pitched, he said. Alameda’s Board of Education denied the school’s charter after its first application, but it ultimately won approval and opened in the fall of 2009.
The school, which has a no-homework policy, offers students electives and rotates its third, fourth and fifth graders through a series of classrooms – instead of the more traditional single-classroom instruction – has faced ups and downs. But it, too, has a formidable waiting list.
The Alameda Community Learning Center is now facing a challenge of its own: The school district is moving the school from its longtime home to make way for a new innovative school program, a “Junior Jets” program that puts middle schoolers on the Encinal High campus in an effort to minimize the number of school changes students face.
“If I came back in five years, I hope the schools have built – they’re still thriving, with a lot of project-based learning and a sustainable size. Hopefully they will have solved facilities problem,” Bentz said.
Bentz said his experiences in Alameda have made him a “pretty strong parent choice advocate,” and that parents want what his schools are offering.
“We don’t send kids class to class all day long. And people like that. They want it. They want something that’s more like the real world than this 1950 factory model of high school and middle school,” he said. “I just think that we ought to use the public’s resources to allow all these different kinds of models to flourish and let the people decide where they want to go,” he said.
Bentz’s retirement will bring him full circle, he said: After nearly three decades inside concrete buildings, he plans to take up rock climbing again and to hike the John Muir Trail and canoe in the Yukon River.
“I want to retire,” he said, “so I can spend the next 13 years outdoors.”