Hundreds turned out to a high school district board meeting last week for and against a new design tech charter being placed at Mills High School, as some feel it will put even more strain on students who had a tough year with Advanced Placement test invalidations and that the decision was made without transparency.
Parents learned at the end of March the San Mateo Union High School District approved sending a letter to the new charter offering six Mills classrooms, each with 960 square feet of space. Safety, financial costs of the school to the district and traffic issues were also of concern. Design Tech High School’s leadership wanted it to be housed at Burlingame High School, but district officials said there isn’t space at the growing Burlingame school. The school did want to be centrally located.
Mills parents who oppose the placement said they wanted to make it clear at the Thursday meeting held in the Burlingame High School auditorium they aren’t against charters, but rather with the lack of communication that the charter — that focuses on design and hands-on project-based learning — would be housed at the school. Mills PTO co-president Christine Noma noted a school like Capuchino High School in San Bruno would be a better fit given that it’s underenrolled.
“In fact, many of us are quite supportive of the idea — please don’t paint us as opposed to change or NIMBY (not in my backyard),” said Mills parent Stacie Hershman. “We’re just very disturbed the process has been conducted in a manner that made it nearly impossible for Mills and Millbrae to be informed and engaged. ... We’re calling on you (the school board) to rescind the decision and start process over again.”
However, Deputy County Counsel Tim Fox said rescinding the decision would subject the district to legal risk since the district has a contract with Design Tech for the Mills campus. Proposition 39, passed by California voters in 2000, requires districts to make “reasonably equivalent” facilities available to charters. The 520-student charter school was approved in November 2013 and will open with just a freshmen class in August, then add on classes each subsequent year. The educational model of the school emphasizes “knowledge in action and extreme personalization.”
Still, board members apologized for their lack of communication about placing the school at Mills. Board members like Trustee Robert Griffin also noted that the district needs to be more timely with placing its meeting minutes online for the public to view. Others like Trustee Peter Hanley said it’s time to start looking for solutions.
“If you choose to make this an adversarial process, that’s going to be your choice because that’s not necessary,” Hanley said. “This is the first time the district has gone through this process and it probably wasn’t as clean as it should have been. … I got an email that it (Design Tech) was going to destroy the entire city of Millbrae if we put 150 kids on the Mills campus; that sounds a lot like “not in my backyard.”
Fox noted that there are many ways in which this is a new experience for the district, but not from the perspective of other districts across the state of California that have added charters and also co-located schools on campuses.
Students expressed how Mills was simply not ready for cohabitation given the turmoil over the College Board invalidating tests by 286 students because of seating irregularities in 11 AP subjects at Mills last year.
“Student morale been low because of AP testing situation,” said Abraham Chung, Associated Student Body president-elect of Mills High. “With new changes around school like administrators and teachers leaving, we don’t need an additional stress.”
Board President Linda Lees Dwyer said she should have been more sensitive to how wounded the community was over the invalidation of its AP exams.
“When it came, I assumed the charter school would be an excellent fit for Mills, she said. “Maybe I should have asked more questions like ‘tell me how the PTO feels.’ The education of this district is incredibly important to me. I think we should look at what we have in common. It’s really important that we listen to you and we communicate.”
If the school is successful, it will have to look elsewhere for space because she doesn’t want Mills to be impacted, she added.
Others came in support of Design Tech as a school itself, including George Toy of Foster City, whose child will be attending Design Tech this fall.
“The mere mention of charter schools can set off alarm bells,” he said. “DTech (Design Tech) is from teachers within district — this is family.”
Ken Montgomery, the school’s executive director, is currently vice principal at Capuchino.
“I understand we’re coming to your campus and you (Mills) feel largely left out of decision,” he said. “I also know many of you feel this is being done to you not for you. … We want to be transparent. … We are willing to take the lead on being good neighbors on the Mills campus.”
The Mills community should keep an open mind and not protest without understanding what the charter will do, said Millbrae resident Wendy Zhang.
“Maybe you’ll want to enroll your own children there,” she said.
Another supporter of Design Tech was Taylor Middle School eighth-grader Ashley Phan, who plans to attend the school in the fall.
“I’m scared without DTech (Design Tech), my future will be really different,” she said.
Others complained about exclusion of Millbrae from the charter in general, noting there were no informational sessions for the new charter held in Millbrae. Burlingame, Foster City, San Bruno, San Mateo all had informational sessions on the school. Millbrae Mayor Wayne Lee noted no one from the district has even contacted the city about the new charter moving to Mills.
“I’m here to express my concern about the lack of communication between your community you represent and the city of Millbrae,” said Mayor Wayne Lee at the Thursday night meeting. “We need to work together as a community. Millbrae’s education community is a very integrated part of the community. You (the board) should never make a decision without robust discussion.”
Others don’t see how different the charter is from Mills’ current curriculum, including Mills teacher Mary Rustia.
“I’ve been doing design tech for all these years,” Rustia said. “The board shouldn’t publicize what we already do at Mills. We will survive this year. I’m insulted we were not informed. … Students will get there and go ‘Mills is a great school.’”
In July 2013, the school focused on entrepreneurship received $100,000 in planning grant funding from Next Generation Learning Challenges for help with costs associated with opening the new high school. Design Tech recently received another grant from the organization for being a “breakthrough” high school, receiving a total award amount of $450,000 this time.
For more information visit designtechhighschool.org.
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