Bullis Ideas: Convert to K-5 / Middle School Format

Tamara Fagin recently returned to Los Altos and suggests reconfiguring to a K-5/middle school format—for academic reasons as well—siting BCS at Covington School and maintaining Los Altos School District offices there to foster more cross-pollination.


Editor's Note: On New Year's Day, Patch asked readers to contribute ideas, large and small, to helping to resolve the facilities issue regarding Bullis Charter School (BCS) and the Los Altos School District (LASD). It could be as simple as an approach, or a more fully thought-out plan.

 We don't expect a magic bullet to appear, but who knows? The point was to start out the new year on a positive and constructive note, with members of our community thinking about solutions and a way forward.

We are publishing one each day. Tamara Fagin is an Almond School parent who considered BCS for her kids.

Dear Los Altos Patch Editor,

Thank you for your excellent coverage of the ongoing Bullis Charter School/Los Altos School District facilities saga.  I have found your articles to be very helpful as I try to make sense of what is at stake, how we got here and what if anything can be done to resolve the BCS facilities issue promptly and with our children’s best interests at heart and our community somewhat intact (or at least, on the mend).

I am a resident of Los Altos with 2 children, a daughter in 5th grade and a son in 2nd grade; both currently attend Almond Elementary School. 

We, like many of our friends at Almond and Bullis Charter School, were drawn to Los Altos for the convenient location, quaint, small town feel and the excellent schools. (And, the lots were significantly bigger than in Palo Alto!) 

Our children began their elementary school careers at Almond but took a one-year break in February 2011 when we moved to Columbus, Ohio. Our kids were fortunate to attend a relatively new, public school called Freedom Trail Elementary School with an amazing principal, excellent teachers and state of the art facilities (including gymnasium, art lab, music rooms (!) with piano keyboards and other instruments for all the kids, etc.—the kind of facilities that would make folks here green with envy if they could only see it. And, everything (except for classroom parties and one or two events a year, like Pioneer Day) was done without parent volunteers. Which makes one wonder… how can we who live in one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the universe and not have what folks in Columbus, Ohio have?! 

Anyway, it appears that relations between LASD and BCS and within the community deteriorated dramatically while we were gone. We were welcomed back to Almond with folks pushing petitions in our faces to sign. I’m a lawyer, and I don’t just sign stuff like that… I don’t care if some mom looks at me incredulously (and with visible frustration and anger) and exclaims, “Oh, so you want them to close Almond?!”  I had to read up on the “scam” as some call it. And, on the “alliance.” Who are these people? What are their motivations? Are they capable of representing me? 

Unlike a lot of my Almond friends, I have actually attended a Bullis Charter School parent information session (this is only a guess because I believe most folks are too timid to admit that they might have attended such a session – and this is really disturbing to me). I understand that Bullis is having one more info session soon, and I encourage folks to go if they have the time and inclination and want to learn more about education, charter schools and Bullis.  They have a really neat, creative and integrative learning program.  I was very impressed with the principal and staff and even more impressed with the articulate and seemingly well-rounded 6th graders who spoke at the beginning of the night regarding their experiences at Bullis.

For what it is worth, I also think that Almond is doing a great job, and we have for the most part been very happy with our experience at Almond. They, too, are fortunate to have many outstanding teachers and very involved and caring parents. But, surely we can all learn from each other and do better; can’t we? 

Since coming back from Ohio, more than one Almond mom has asked me for info on what Ohio is doing that Almond is not (or could be doing better).  Not one person has ever asked me about whether what Bullis is doing is better for their son, daughter or family. But, I believe that many Los Altos School District parents privately wonder and want to know more about what is going on over there – in those portable classrooms. 

I would love for people to take a deep breath, do some yoga/meditation or walk in Redwood Grove and then regroup and consider these ideas/suggestions for 2013:

1.     Learn more about Bullis Charter School and focus on what they are doing in the classroomnot the courtroom. Call me naïve but I care more about the classroom – let the officials we elected, the attorneys, the LASD school board, BCS board, etc. sort out the litigation/settlement or let’s vote them out ASAP or let them know we don’t like what they are doing. Email, call or meet with them and let them know how you feel. Write an editorial.

2.     Learn more about why public charter schools exist and the problems with our current 1950’s based education system, California’s budget woes and what folks like Michelle Rhee are doing to reform education in America so we are not close to last place in STEM worldwide.  Hint: It is not only about improving educational resources for underserved children/families. It is also about improving/modernizing our education system for ALL children.

3.     Consider accelerating Los Altos School District's adoption of a K-5 elementary school and 6-8 middle school format, like Palo Alto, Delaware County, Ohio and a lot of other outstanding school districts across the country.  I say “accelerate” because I understand that the Los Altos School District was planning to make this change prior to the BCS lawsuit (which apparently postponed adoption of this needed reform).  I say “needed” because I think our 6th graders are not getting the education in science, etc. that they need in 2013 on our k-6 campuses.  I think that we need real labs, dedicated science teachers, etc., and we need access to better facilities for our 6th graders.  And, let’s face it – 6th graders today are a lot more mature than the 6thgraders of 20+ years ago (on most days!). Having 6th graders and 1st graders (and, kindergarteners) on the same campus (5 to 12 year olds), sharing the same library, bathrooms, lunch area, etc. and attending the same events, etc. seems odd and possibly not the best for the 6th graders and the 1st graders (and kindergarteners).

4.     Consider providing a central LASD campus, such as Covington, to Bullis Charter School but retain the LASD administrative offices there to foster collaboration between the district and Bullis Charter School.  Heed Bill Gates’ call for increased collaboration between charter schools and public (non-charter) schools.

5.     If #4 above is enacted, consider redistricting Covington students (K-5, because 6th grade will go to Blach or Egan, as the case may be) so that, to the extent possible, they attend a “neighborhood school.” Covington K-5 students on the Almond side, could go to Almond.  Do similar redistricting so that as many kids as possible can walk or bike to school.  Consult with GreenTown Los Altos, police, parents, etc. and get their input on how this would best work.

6.     If #4 and #5 above are enacted, consider revising the Bullis Charter School admissions preferences such that: Covington k-5 students (the displaced students) have the highest preference for attending Bullis Charter School. Also, the existing geographical preferences should be removed so that all kids in the Los Altos School District have equal priority. This likely will require a charter amendment but seems fair if BCS is located on a LASD campus.

I hope that some of the above constitutes a new, fresh perspective, and that folks who have more experience with this issue, access to student demographic numbers (historic, actual and projected), knowledge of charter and education law, local education board, county and city politics/budgets/restrictions, etc. might find some of this helpful and palatable (even if not all do-able) and tweak as need be. 

Lastly, I apologize in advance to my friends and neighbors at Covington—I only used Covington in the above because I heard that the other campuses are not big enough (even with modules?!) to accommodate BCS’s projected growth and because of Covington’s central location within LASD and the fact that it houses the administrators of LASD. If this assumption is incorrect (in other words, if Almond, for example is large enough), then by all means, someone please make a case for another campus or alternative (shared or merged campuses or new site within Los Altos or Los Altos Hills). I would hate to see our community figure something out and then it not work if BCS were to become too popular.

As is the case with these kinds of issues, there is no perfect solution or the smart, well-intentioned folks who have been working on this for 10+ years (look at the White Paper on Los Altos Community Fund’s website from 2006 on how to solve this thing!) would have figured it out by now. Building a new campus may never happen.  Let’s find a solution that can be outlined by the end of this school year and implemented for the 2014-2015 school year. And, let’s be open (and I don’t mean make every meeting/discussion/email open to the public – I don’t think anyone wants that or would suggest that that is an efficient way to get anything done), reasonable and purposeful … and let’s act swiftly. 

Formulated with hope that this is the year that we can reach some kind of settlement and get this behind us.  Let’s do it for the kids.

—Tamara Fagin

TAMARA FAGIN is a Los Altos resident with an active elementary school duo and a great mensch of a husband. She is a dedicated community organizer, the Chair of the Almond Elementary School Running (& Walking) Club, a free, PTA-sponsored lunch time club, and the Director of Development of Fit Kids in Menlo Park (www.fitkids.org). 

LASD Taxpayer January 12, 2013 at 12:25 AM
@AlmondParent - Thank you for the response. After further research, Egan and Blach do have CEQA restrictions but it of course is higher than the elementary schools. The middle school CEQAs were updated when the "camp" schools relocated during the updating of the elementary schools in early 2000. Any reconfiguration of the front entrance such as moving it to Jordan would require an updated CEQA prior to reconfiguration and would certainly allow the neighbors around Egan to raise there concerns and frustrations for the past 10 years. I think a 10th site is the only answer and I am perplexed why BCS parents would not also support that. Why do we continue to try to close or relocate an existing school when we should be working together to find a site location that is acceptable to BCS and pass a bond to do it? I don't think I have ever read a statement from the BCS board identifying a site other than an existing school site. If we did a survey asking the community - would you support a bond that allows all existing LASD schools to remain open and at their current location? would you support a bond that would relocate BCS to a 10th site to provide LASD with much needed space and flexibility for the NEC growth. I bet we could get it passed. So BCS supporters let's hear of some acceptable sites and work together!
Chuck B January 12, 2013 at 05:58 AM
I don't have a problem with BCS having a different model. The article seems to suggest that the k-6 model of LASD is shortchanging the 6th grader. That somehow, having a 6th grader next to a first garder is not good. Yet, the "wonderful" BCS model is doing k-8. I can see that something not logical like this hide an agenda. Basically, the core of the argument is that LASD should give to all the demand of BCS for its own good (or at least the 6th grader). This argument doesn't fly with me ...
Joan J. Strong January 13, 2013 at 01:08 AM
AlmondParent, calling out your previously stated motivations--which you worked to hide in this current thread--is not a personal attack. If you wish to switch to BCS from LASD and prefer BCS, or you dislike LASD, then just say so. Don't pretend to be "neutral" when you are not. You implied that you wouldn't mind losing the school you (presumably) loved very much because you believe so strongly in the global (and "right wing", for what it's worth) cause of charter schools. Now we know that none of that is true--you just want BCS to have a campus closer to you when your children attend the school. That's not a personal attack, that's just a fact about you that is directly relevant to this conversation.
Rational Observer March 18, 2013 at 08:27 PM
Tamara- Following up 2 months later (since I rec'd an aggressive email on March 17th from "Joan"), I'm back on this thread. Did that meeting ever take place? Did "Joan"' ever contact you? Thank you for trying to move the ball forward. And apologies for referring to you as "Tammy" which Joan & her ilk, in their attempt to distract from the issues & make progress, attacked me for my informal address.
Joan J. Strong March 18, 2013 at 10:29 PM
I have sent no such email to anybody named "Concerned Los Altan" or anybody who could have possibly have been this person. I also never mentioned who addressed who as what, and I really don't care about such things. Please stop making things up.


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