Posted by Steven Levin on August 25, 2016 at 12:54 PM
CCSA Advocates is reinventing public education one vote at a time. And we have been working to accomplish this by supporting local school board candidates who we believe will make a difference not just for charter school students, but for all students.
Case in point: in the June 2016 school board elections in Riverside County, CCSA Advocates supported Barbara Hale, a former teacher who became a principal at Sycamore Academy, a TK-8 charter school in Wildomar. Along with two other CCSA Advocates-endorsed candidates, Bruce Dennis and Ray “Coach” Curtis, Barbara won that election and was sworn into the Riverside County Board of Education shortly thereafter. Just by electing these three candidates to the school board, Riverside went from a county with a reputation of being hostile towards charter schools to one that is viewed as much friendlier.
Barbara has spent more than twenty years of her life dedicated to working with students and their families throughout Riverside County. She was a founding member of Sycamore Academy, which is now in its eighth year of operation. As a parent, teacher and principal, Barbara has worked collaboratively with students, families, teachers, administrators and the community to provide a high quality education to all children and ensure that they reach their full potential. After years of promoting charter schools and facing constant opposition to them – much of which she attributes to lack of knowledge about charters – Barbara decided to seek higher office to make even more of a mark than she already has.
We talked with Barbara about Riverside County, her thoughts on charter schools there and her plans to effect change for all students.
1. Can you describe Riverside County and the County Office of Education for those who are unfamiliar with them?
Riverside County is one of the largest counties in California, both geographically and in terms of population. It has densely populated areas along with rural areas and is extremely diverse. The county has only about a dozen autonomous charter schools. The County Office of Education has a reputation of being charter-unfair, and it is largely believed in the area that the "tone" of the county office trickles down into the districts, resulting in a very charter-unfriendly county. The County Board was made up of predominantly retired district superintendents, all brilliant in that area but believed all the myths about charter schools. After the last election, we now have three consistently charter-fair Trustees and the other Trustees are engaged and interested in hearing the charter perspective.
2. In your opinion, what are the big educational issues affecting Riverside County?
Most district administrators have the mentality that charters are taking students, money and facilities from the districts and therefore fight charters rather than appreciate that they serve students that need a different environment from what is offered in traditional public schools. Charter leaders recognize that the money and facilities belong to the public and follow the student that both are intended to serve. Public education in the “charter world” is viewed as a service of choice. The resources follow the student to the service provider that best meets the needs of the student. We are all providing education to meet the State Standards but parents choose the delivery method that suits their children. Most district teachers do not understand charter schools and therefore misinform each other and parents. Each charter is unique, intentionally. On the whole, variety in educational programs is lacking in Riverside County - especially options in high schools. There are very few high schools that offer any sort of trade training or "specialty" courses. The biggest issue is that throughout the county you will hear "kids first" missions and slogans but the actions show that the decision makers are about maintaining the broken system first. While I recognize that the “system” served us well, times have changed, needs have changed, our students have changed, and it’s time for us to do so.
3. How are charter schools operating in Riverside County? Any success stories?
There are several success stories. Temecula Preparatory Academy is one of the highest performing public schools in Temecula. Temecula Valley Charter School offers a project-based parent-participation option and you can find evidence of the real-world learning projects done in collaboration with businesses throughout the area. Santa Rosa Academy has a waitlist that could fill another school of 2,000 and they own their own site. Sycamore Academy (my school) offers a unique program with emphasis in sciences and the arts, we own our own site and we have a lengthy waitlist. San Jacinto Academy has been operating for about 20 years and is very well regarded. Riversprings is one of the largest independent study programs in the state and ensures programs specific to the community where they open learning centers. These schools are all autonomous charters, “mom and pop shops” that were built up by classroom teachers and parents from the local community with goals customized to address their community needs. Each of these schools are success stories as demonstrated by the facts that they all have achieved the required targets, have waitlists of students wanting to attend and have taken huge strides in a variety of areas without the assistance of a lot of resources and funding sources available to traditional schools.
4. If you could wave a magic wand and fix 1-3 things in the county, what would they be?
In the County, I would make the public more knowledgeable about charter schools and what quality charter programs have to offer. I would love to mend the divide between charter and non-charter groups in order for them to understand how they benefit one another, allow teachers to share best practices, allow administrations to work together. Transportation is a huge obstacle for under-served students to exercise choice in education so I would love to find a way to solve that issue. I also have noticed that we need to do more work in the area of educating parents and providing resources for struggling families.
5. What role does technology have in the classroom? What is the Riverside BOE doing to ensure that students are properly trained for the workplace in the 21st century?
Technology is a wonderful educational tool and students must learn to use and troubleshoot technology in order to be prepared for the 21st century workforce. The RCBOE offers alternative programs and supports Districts within the county with guidance, resources and support for a variety of programs. The RCBOE reviews LCAPs and visits sites, but in reality, it's the county superintendent who manages the day to day operations of the schools.
6. Can you tell us more about Sycamore Academy, the charter school where you are the Director/Principal?
The Sycamore Academy is a constructivist based, multi-age program that was authorized in 2009 by Lake Elsinore Unified School District after a three-year battle to save a magnet program. The 31 founders include 21 teachers from a local magnet program that was dismantled when new District Administration came in. Now in our eighth year of operation, we enjoy a very nice relationship with our authorizer. In our fifth year we obtained $9.4 million in bond financing, bought a parcel and built a ground-up school that is truly unique.
7. What made you decide to run for the Riverside County Board of Education?
After sitting in the audience for five years and listening to the rhetoric of anti-charter people, I decided that it was not enough to just speak for five minutes at each meeting during the public comment section. I figured that I don't have the right to complain about the problem if I'm not involved in fixing it and the only way to do that was to sit in one of the "big chairs."
8. How has working at a charter school affected your decision making style and has it helped serve you as a school board member?
I believe the whole process of petitioning, starting, defending, growing and then reflecting on and improving our school has changed me as a person. I see why it is important to understand the opposition before you can help them understand your position. I don't see failures; instead I see problems to be solved. While I've only had two county board meetings thus far, I have noticed some blatant differences between the other members and myself. I think Inter-district transfers are stupid, and the excuses districts give for denial are not driven by what's best for students but rather by the almighty dollar. I see several members' concern for a District while I'm always focused on the individual student. When I hear an expulsion appeal, the first thing I'm thinking is always, "If only he/she had access to an alternative program, we'd save a lot of children.” There are some very smart people with great intentions serving on many Boards of Education.
9. What role do you think charter schools play in public education in California?
Added value, healthy competition, and choice. We are perfect for those students who don't "fit" in the traditional mold.
10. What do you enjoy most/find most rewarding about the job? What frustrates you the most?
I love my job! I love working with students, families and staff. I love problem solving and continually improving and refining our program, procedures and practice. We have a beautiful facility and I love the fact that I had a hand in getting that done for our students and all the students who will come after them. Closed-mindedness frustrates me the most, especially when it's blanketed in legislation targeted at restricting the autonomy of charter schools.