Students work on a writer’s workshop assignment in Emily Murray’s elementary multi-age classroom at the San Diego Cooperative Charter School’s Mountain View campus, pictured in 2015. / Photo by Dustin Michelson
Students work on a writer’s workshop assignment in Emily Murray’s elementary multi-age classroom at the San Diego Cooperative Charter School’s Mountain View campus, pictured in 2015. / Photo by Dustin Michelson

Learning Curvers, hi, sorry I missed you last week. I was, how do you say, real damn busy.

I’ve been covering the meltdown of probably the most progressive charter school in San Diego for the past couple of weeks, and it has really been something to behold.

The school has been engulfed in infighting and had its progressive mettle tested. On Wednesday, the co-op board took the extraordinary step of shutting down one its campuses mid-school-year.

The school has one campus in Linda Vista, a more affluent and whiter part of town, and another in Mountain View, where more students live near the poverty line. Mountain View is the campus that will close, which will leave 184 students without a school come December.

Here’s why I’m re-capping all this: A group of Mountain View parents and teachers has created a committee, which hopes to turn the Mountain View campus into a “pilot school” that can replicate the co-op’s progressive, crunchy model.

You could be forgiven for not knowing what a pilot school is, since this would be the first one ever in San Diego. As Sara Libby told me, “Sounds like a good idea for a Learning Curve.”

A pilot school is kind of like a charter school – at least in so much as it can operate with more independence than a traditional public school. But it’s also not like a charter school at all.

Pilot schools are operated by school districts, and as I mentioned, this would be the first one ever in San Diego Unified School District. The original idea was that a group of teachers and parents at a normal public school could come together and say, “Hey, we want to turn our school into a pilot.”

The pilot model provides more room for unique curriculum, and it can provide more freedom to hire certain teachers.

Los Angeles Unified has invested heavily in the pilot model. The district opened its first pilot school in 2007, and now has more than 40 pilot schools. L.A. Unified also claims those schools perform better on average than district schools.

The graduation rate at L.A.’s pilot schools was seven points higher than the district average, according to a 2016 report. Pilot school students were also significantly more likely to attend a four-year university, the report found.

The initial idea behind charter schools was that they might come up with innovative approaches to education, which could then be transferred into traditional public schools. Pilot schools, the thinking goes, offer a perfect vehicle for the transfer to take place.

Richard Barrera is a San Diego Unified board member who is backing the idea that the co-op’s Mountain View campus be turned into a pilot school. He also hopes any pilot experiment there might pave the way for more pilots in San Diego.

But, as far as transfers of knowledge go, he also said charters have a lot to learn from San Diego Unified, especially in regard to professional development.

As nice as it sounds, charter schools and districts may not be setting down to hold hands any time soon. The political climate has been too hostile. And charters and traditional public schools have viewed each other as competition. Thus, the lines of communication have been closed, said Barrera.

Ultimately, for a pilot to be approved, three groups must sign off: parents and teachers within the school, San Diego Unified board members and the San Diego teachers union.

Teachers unions have to be involved in the development of pilots, because pilots usually involve slight modifications to the teachers’ contract.

The parents and teachers of the Mountain View campus who want a pilot are looking for two key considerations. They hope to continue to use a “constructivist” curriculum, which will focus on finding what children are passionate about and creating assignments that play into those passions.

They are also hoping the San Diego teachers union will agree to let them hire back most of the staff, who will lose their jobs this December. Normally, more senior teachers have priority in choosing school assignments within California school districts. But the pilot model allows for this contract provision to be suspended at pilot schools.

What We’re Writing

I cannot say this enough: The new season of our education podcast is really, really good! Please check out our latest two episodes of Good Schools for All. We just dropped a new episode on Southern California’s homegrown $80 million charter school scandal. And before that, we told two of the most tragic and maddening stories from our school sexual misconduct series. If you’re feeling ready for it, you should give that one a listen. It is incredibly well-produced, thanks to Nate John.

Charter school teachers are far less experienced than their traditional public school peers, according to a data analysis we ran in collaboration with the UC San Diego Extension Center for Research and Evaluation.

The state blocked Thomas Jefferson School of Law’s ability to accept GI Bill benefits temporarily last year. The school has had persistent problems for the last several years.

We’ve been reporting on some massive and obvious failures about the way teacher misconduct is handled for the past two years. “But most students who’ve shared their stories with us have also said they experienced a softer kind of failing by the adults entrusted with protecting them,” Ashly McGlone wrote. Students often feel that administrators’ immediate reaction is to brush off their concerns or show distrust. It’s part of the trauma that students have to live with after misconduct – administrators treating them as if they were in the wrong or crazy.

Then there’s the San Diego Cooperative Charter School. Last week, I wrote a story that described a chaotic board meeting with parents shouting down board members. This week, I delved into the backstory on “How the San Diego Cooperative Went from Kumbaya to a Bitter Breakup.” TM Sara Libby. She wrote that.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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