School board to consider renewing Nea charter

School board to consider renewing Nea charter

Michele Ellson

Leaders and parents from the Nea Community Learning Center pitched the Board of Education on renewing the school’s charter at the board’s meeting Tuesday night.

District staff will offer a recommendation on whether to extend Nea’s charter on December 10, and the board is expected to consider a five-year renewal of the school’s charter on December 17.

To win a renewal, the charter’s leaders must demonstrate that they have met a list of criteria that includes test score performance, proper governance and fiscal soundness, and if they have done so, the school board is required to grant its approval.

“We use the same process we would use for charter approval, the criteria is very specific, and it’s very limited in what we can or cannot impose or would otherwise dictate to this particular charter,” board member Mike McMahon said. “As long as they’ve met their original charter, and they’re aligned what district is doing – which you guys are doing with Common Core – it’s probably pretty cut and dried.”

The school, which was originally conceived to serve an overflow of students at the Alameda Community Learning Center, opened in 2009 to students in kindergarten through ninth grade. This year, it’s serving more than 500 students in grades K-12 with a program that must meet the same standards as more traditional public schools but offers teachers more latitude in how they achieve those results, with a focus on project-based learning and no homework for grade schoolers.

Lead facilitator Maafi Gueye – Nea’s version of a principal – also touted the school’s heavy investment in technology and its full-time art and music teachers, staff that many of the district’s schools lack.

Nea courted controversy when it first sought a charter, in 2008, some of it coming from parents and educators who feared the school would both drain scarce funding from existing schools and programs and leave tougher-to-educate students behind. Nea’s first charter petition was denied in January of that year by school board members who questioned whether the school’s student population would reflect the district’s diversity and also said the school would rely too much on existing district programs. But the charter was amended and approved in November 2008.

Last year, a little more than a third of the school’s students were white, compared with about a fifth of the district’s overall student population, data provided by Nea’s leaders and on the state’s Ed-Data website show; 20 percent of the district’s students and 15 percent of Nea’s are English learners.

About 30 percent of the school’s students come from off-Island, according to Paul Bentz, formerly the executive director of Community Learning Center Schools Inc.; charter schools are required by state law to accept students from anywhere in California.

The school’s Academic Performance Index scores have topped 800 – the number considered by the state to equal success – for each of the four years it’s been open, but like Alameda Unified as a whole, it has struggled with an achievement gap that is leaving black and Latino students behind.

“I’m not happy with these scores. As an African American leader, I thought we would do better with these populations,” Gueye said. She said the school is focusing on the problem this year, conducting biweekly assessments of student performance and providing an after-school support program to help students who are struggling.

Parents who attended Tuesday’s meeting, though, said they are happy with the school and they want it to remain open.

Stephanie Rodriguez has been with Nea since it opened in 2009. Now the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association president, she has three children at Nea, and she said she likes the project-based learning, creative problem solving and flexible curriculum it offers.

The school’s fourth-grade students have set up a weekly farmer’s market, she said, handling both publicity and produce ordering as well as sales. The market teaches students creative problem solving skills and math, as well as how to run a business.

Andy McKee, who teaches at St. Joseph Notre Dame and has two children at Nea, said he likes the school’s approach – and its lack of homework at the grade school level.

“They come home and do creative projects,” McKee, who is an art teacher, said.

When Nea opened it was the only public school on the Island that offered a nontraditional K-5 program. But the district has since opened an arts magnet at the former Washington School and launched an innovative, technology-enabled program at Amelia Earhart, part of a broader initiative aimed at retaining parents by providing them more choices.

Even so, Nea remains popular, and charter schools educate a sizable fraction of Alameda’s public school population. About 12 percent of Alameda’s public school students attend one of the Island’s charters, and Nea has a sizable waiting list for its K-5 program.

The growing number of choices has put considerable strain on the district’s facilities. Nea is split across two campuses (its grade schoolers share space with the Academy of Alameda Middle School charter, whose leadership has voiced a desire to expand to become a K-8 school) and its progenitor, the Alameda Community Learning Center, was bumped to the Wood Middle School campus from Encinal High School this year in order to make way for the new Junior Jets middle school program there.

But schools leaders intend to address charters’ space needs as part of their effort to develop a facilities master plan for the district, a development Bentz and Patti Wilczek, Community Learning Center Schools Inc.’s new executive director, cheered Tuesday.

“We’re glad for the opportunity to be at the table,” Wilczek said.


Submitted by David (not verified) on Wed, Nov 6, 2013

Nea kids write and give back to the community too... (It's also interesting to note that some of the most vocal critics of the Nea charter went on to start up the Academy of Alameda, also a charter...)

Submitted by parent (not verified) on Fri, Nov 8, 2013

Is someone ever going to look at the turnover of teachers at NEA's middle school and ask why they can't keep good teachers?

Submitted by anotherparent (not verified) on Sat, Nov 9, 2013

Turnover is due to many factors. One very good reason being rejection of mediocre teachers. There is no tenure at Nea. If a teacher isn't great, the teacher is gone. Turnover is hard on a school community, but I would prefer it to allowing bad teachers to hold their spots decade after decade.

Submitted by andanotherparent (not verified) on Sun, Nov 10, 2013

Some of the teachers that left Nea needed to be gone. Nea can't talk about "why" publicly, but I can tell you that the most popular teachers are not always the good ones. Others made decisions based on personal reasons and did not leave with any animosity toward Nea. My kid has been there since the beginning, and thinks that the teachers that are new this year are great, and that they don't miss their favorites that often fell short on follow-through.