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Monday, November 21, 2005 | It is the intention of the Founding Group to use this Charter application to create Steele Canyon High School as an independent, non-profit 501c(3) corporation under the laws provided by the California Education Code.”
Apparently, them’s fightin’ words to Grossmont Union High School District superintendent Terry Ryan, who reacted to the opening sentence of the 32-page charter application, delivered to the GUHSD in early November, by sending a four-page letter to Steele Canyon parents warning them of “risks associated with changing Steele Canyon’s relationship to the Grossmont District.”
In his letter, Ryan states that a “small group of teachers” is responsible for proposing the change in status from a regular school to a charter school. But Steele Canyon government teacher Charles Tyler, a leader in the charter drive, said 95 percent of teachers signed the charter petition. “Only two [of 74 full-time teachers] didn’t sign it,” he said, claiming overwhelming support for the charter from staff.
Steele Canyon, located in Spring Valley, is one of 11 high schools in the GUHSD, and serves about 2,000 students in ninth through 12th grades. Steele Canyon charter supporters modeled much of their petition after Helix Charter High School’s, another GUHSD school and the only other charter in the district.
The tone of Ryan’s letter to parents, which seeks to dissuade support for the charter petition, has raised eyebrows in the community by suggesting that converting Steele Canyon to a charter, like Helix, could deny enrollment to students living in the current attendance area, increase gang activity by allowing students from outside the district to enroll, and alter the character and racial mix of the school.
“With the changing demographics of the district, a conversion charter school could become racially isolated,” reads the controversial sixth point in Ryan’s letter. “This means that a charter school by law may be forced to diversify its student population to reflect the ethnic distribution of the district. This would further alter the educational environment of the charter high school.”
“It seems the Grossmont school board just keeps adding more and more far right, far white leaders,” said La Mesa resident Lynn Swanson, who compared Ryan’s statement to a hate crime. “It’s racist and it’s embarrassing.”
Swanson supports the charter petition, saying, “Parents should reject this racism disguised as concern. They should remain strong against this kind of intimidation. This is the time to stand behind their children and demand an education that is rich in challenge and tolerance.”
Tyler said the strongest reaction to Ryan’s letter has come from Helix parents and staff who have objected, he said, to the suggestion that the academic program at Helix has suffered as a result of being a charter school and that their school is plagued by gangs due to enrollment of students from outside the school’s attendance area.
La Mesa resident Jack Shu, who has a daughter attending Helix and two older children who graduated from the charter school, said he thought it was odd that Ryan was taking such a hard position on just a proposal. The superintendent also “appeared to be taking side shots at Helix Charter which I didn’t appreciate,” Shu said. “And I felt that he pulled the race card to try to scare parents.”
Shu said he has not noticed any increase in gang activity at Helix since it became a charter school, as the letter implied. “That’s all speculation,” said Shu, who is skeptical of the validity of the claim. He, like Swanson, called the situation embarrassing to the community and said he has been very satisfied with the academic standards and performance at Helix.
Swanson agreed. “My granddaughter attended Helix Charter High where college preparation is the standard,” she said. “This fall she started at Princeton University.”
Burden on the district
Ryan’s letter suggests that Helix Charter has cost the district money and that, contrary to Helix claims, the charter is not run more efficiently than regular schools. “The district governing board cannot afford to approve another charter school agreement like the Helix Charter, without doing so at the expense of East County youth in our other schools,” the letter reads.
Helix supporters have taken exception to the charge in Ryan’s letter that their school’s charter agreement “unfairly allocates many burdens and responsibilities to the district” and that “the net effect of this is that Helix has a budgetary surplus at the expense of every student in the Grossmont District.”
A group defending the Helix charter called the remarks untrue and inflammatory, and posted a response online to counter Ryan’s charges. The response lays out accounting figures that prove, they say, that “the Helix charter model does work to maximize the success of students and it is a model of public school efficiency.”
The document, which is unsigned but presented as the “Helix Charter High School Response to Superintendent Terry Ryan’s Letter to Steele Canyon Parents,” concludes by asking, “Who is the real burden on the back of every student in the Grossmont district?”
Tyler said Steele Canyon is now allocated about $6.9 million but as a charter would receive about $12.5 million directly from the state. After factoring in the cost of about $4 million for facilities, maintenance and other operational expenses that are currently covered by the district, “we would still end up with $1.5 million more than we now get,” he said.
Steele Canyon opened six years ago, with Tyler as the school’s vice principal, and has the second-highest Academic Performance Index ranking in the district – 737, up 18 points from last year. Helix Charter recorded an API this year of 714 – up 27 points from last year’s, the greatest increase in the district.
All public schools are assigned an API number by the state Department of Education based primarily on a battery of assessment tests administered to students each spring. An API number ranges from 200 to 1,000, with 800 as the target.
A charter school has autonomy from its district office and is run more independently than regular schools. Charter schools are managed by their own governing boards and are able to hire and fire their own staff, control and prioritize finances, develop and design curriculum and instructional programs, and run their own site-based operations. Funding, based on per-pupil attendance, is provided by the state directly to the charter school, which must participate in state-mandated testing to ensure that academic standards are being met.
The first goal is to maintain academic excellence, he said.
“We have harder graduation requirements than other schools in the district, and our school outperforms other schools,” Tyler said. He is worried that the school’s unique block, or quarter, system for classes and instruction – which he said is a key component of the school’s success – could be eliminated by the district. “We’ve felt indications that the board wants to take that away.”
Ryan, however, expressed support for the quarter system in his letter, noting, “We have every intention of continuing the quarter system and have no plans or reason to alter Steele Canyon’s excellent instructional program.”
The second goal is fiscal responsibility. “The district is cutting programs, particularly for students who struggle,” Tyler said. “We want to control our funds and not have the money pass through the district.”
The other three goals are to retain quality staff, offer leadership development and provide community engagement. Tyler said the charter school’s governing board would consist of four community members and three teachers, which he said would give parents and the community direct oversight of the school. “This creates a more respectful attitude,” he said.
This year, the GUHSD has experienced escalating friction with its teachers’ union over the two parties’ continued inability to reach agreement on contract issues.
Ryan charges in his letter that a motivation for the charter is “an apparent desire to ‘end-run’ the difficult, ongoing negotiations between the district and the labor union representing district teachers.”
Tyler said this is not the case. “There is no talk of a different deal or a better deal (for teachers),” he said. “This is not labor-related.”
Tyler also said this has nothing to do with the perception of many in East County and Grossmont that Ryan and his five-member board are politically conservative and have moved the district into closer alignment with extreme right-wing Republican Party positions on education issues. He said it is true this board is more fiscally conservative, but he claims the school’s charter movement is driven more by the radical shift in philosophy that can occur in election years.
“Every few years, the board changes dramatically,” Tyler said. “We are attempting to get away from the seesaw effect.”
Ryan, who did not return phone calls, wrote that the charter would not “improve student learning, increase learning opportunities for low achievers, employ different or innovative teaching methods or programs, or create new professional opportunities for teachers.” He also maintains that there are “literally hundreds of legal, financial, management and educational questions which remain unanswered.”
Tyler counters that these issues are all being addressed in the charter application, adding that some of the superintendent’s comments to parents about the school’s proposed conversion have been misleading. “He does not understand the charter concept,” Tyler said.
Ryan calls the application an “extreme departure” from the district’s programs and asks the petitioners and parents to consider all possible ramifications before proceeding. “It’s taken years to develop an award-winning high school at Steele Canyon, and it’s difficult to understand why any responsible educator would seek to tamper with this clearly successful and proven model,” he states in his letter.
Grossmont trustees have until early February to approve or deny the application, which will be discussed at the Dec. 8 school board meeting. If the board opposes the charter, supporters have the option of taking their petition to the county or the state Board of Education for approval.
“We are in it for the long haul, because it is appropriate for the educational level of our school,” said Tyler. “For now we are hopeful that this board will approve it.”
Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at