A task force has been established to help Mills High School, a new charter school and officials in the San Mateo Union High School District figure out how to make a co-location at the Millbrae campus work and to discuss where to place the charter school after the 2014-15 school year.
The Mills High School Co-location Task Force met for the first time May 19 with key stakeholders, including Mills parents and district administration. Parents learned at the end of March the San Mateo Union High School District approved sending a letter to the new charter called Design Tech High School, 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.
“I really felt the meeting was productive — it demonstrated clear commitment to communication,” said Mills Principal Paul Belzer at a school board meeting Thursday night. “It (the task force) recommended designing a process to meet the needs of d.tech beyond the next school year. Several issues were identified if both schools continue to co-locate after this school year. … In light of the projected enrollment growth, I ask the district do a thorough review of the d.tech co-location.”
Parents were happy to have a place to air their concerns about the co-location, including Mills parent Steve Fong, a member of the task force. He noted the first meeting included a lot of good, open dialogue.
“It gives us an opportunity to communicate and work together on a cohesive solution,” he said. “Mills High School is a fantastic high school and it is a school with a wonderful culture I’ve been very much a part of for the last four years; not just academically. I have an objective that’s very simple — that’s to maintain, preserve and protect Mills High school for Millbrae students.”
Planning for growth
Fong noted it’s important for the district to come up with a comprehensive facilities plan that takes into account d.tech’s growth. Mills parent David Chow, who is on the task force, said he moved to Millbrae when his son was 18 months old so he could go to Mills High School.
“How we got to the co-location was not great,” he said. “Moving forward, we need to make things right to work for the kids and for everyone.”
Christy Knott, the 520-student charter’s director of health and wellness, said she wants to make sure both schools are comfortable. The 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.”
“We want to come to a solution that works for everyone,” she said. “We’re excited to be part of helping to take the lead on being good neighbors to Mills High School.”
Board members were pleased with the formation of the task force as well.
“I was very, very worried about this situation,” said board President Linda Lees Dwyer. “I actually slept that Monday night (the night of the task force meeting). The process was imperfect at best. … It was a really good meeting. Everyone participated and we’re working on solutions. We need to make things work for everyone.”
Parents did raise concerns about the lack of public discussion allowed for the decision to co-locate at Mills, including Stacie Hershman, a parent and task force member. The fact that there was little information in the board minutes pertaining to the decision to co-locate the charter with Mills raised concerns for Hershman. There were 20 sets of minutes missing from the district’s website that were up for approval at the Thursday night meeting, but they were ultimately pulled from the agenda because some needed to be reviewed further, Lees Dwyer said.
“There are questions that aren’t in minutes that are really important,” Hershman said. “What I know is that in times of change, transparency, communication and honesty become more important than ever. Monday night’s meeting was a start, but we need to have in the record an accurate report of what did happen. There’s no report on the decision for Mills; was there such a report? … Surprisingly, I found absolutely no reflection about discussion of Mills as a site. … Was there board action that authorized the offer of the Mills facility?”
Trustee Peter Hanley noted the decision was approved on the recommendation of staff.
Push for Foster City location
Meanwhile, some parents in the school district believe the school would be a good fit for Foster City, which doesn’t have a high school.
“It’s the only city that has no high school,” said Peggy Toye of Foster City. “Schools are a public service, so I don’t think they can be measured like a business. It (the co-location) can be done. I would love the opportunity to choose between two high schools [like Millbrae does].”
Another Foster City resident said his dream would be to have a high school in Foster City and that this charter could be a good fit.
Still, trustees like Hanley said it’s an uphill battle trying to put a school in Foster City, as he was blocked at every point.
“Good luck on Foster City,” Hanley said. “I spent from 2002 to 2008 trying to bring a high school to Foster City and at one point I had a charter approved, but all we needed was a facility in Foster City. … I think it would be great, but I have six years of battle scars from trying to make it happen.”
Hanley noted that there should be more schools from which parents can choose.
“I’m very pleased we’re going to work things out for this year,” he said. “We have to be able to adapt to new schools coming into the system.”
Conversely, Lees Dwyer believes Foster City has changed.
“If anyone can work to put another school in Foster City, it’s the parents,” she said. “If you (Foster City residents) want to put d.tech in the city, form your group and work on it.”
Overall, there are more students coming into the southern end of the school district than the district has capacity for, said board Vice President Marc Friedman. Schools, like Mills, will have to get used to changes like school co-location, he said.
“We have tried very hard the last few years to find property and locate schools in the southern end where we know we have more students than we have school space,” he said. “We’ve been unsuccessful I guess — it’s no secret. We’re going to have to find ways for students in our southern end of the district to attend schools in that northern end of the district. That’s going to mean all sorts of change — everyone needs to grasp we’re going to have changes.”
Education is going to change dramatically, said Trustee Stephen Rogers.
“Co-location will look insignificant in the next 10 years,” he said. “Can’t we just agree to give it (co-location) a chance? It might actually make things better.”
The next task force meeting date has yet to be set.
For more information visit designtechhighschool.org.
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