How Does Silicon Valley Teach Its Children? With A FabLab!

I recall sitting bored in my grade school science class decades ago, and wondering… Instead of giving us so many lectures, wouldn’t it be better to teach us how to build something cool instead? I felt that, by making real objects, we could learn in ways that were more memorable, interesting, and tangible.

It turns out I wasn’t alone. What educators call project-based learning has become a major movement. And now, one elementary school in Silicon Valley is taking this idea to an even higher level.

This fall, Bullis Charter School in Los Altos, California is launching a fabrication laboratory—a “FabLab”—for its kids, complete with computer-aided design tools and a 3-D printer. Students will be able to design their ideas and then make them in real life. My oldest son happens to be one of those lucky children. What I only dreamed about in school—making real things based on the subject matter taught in class—is becoming the reality for kids today.

When I was growing up, lectures, memorization, and heavy testing were the dominant practice in education. Much of the world still follows this industrial-age model. But times have changed. Students are entering a world where they must learn how to be self-directed, self-motivated, able to function in collaborative teams, and flexible enough to adapt to changing situations. In short, they must be like startups. And startups make things in real life.

I interviewed Bullis Charter School’s Superintendent/Principal Wanny Hersey and David Malpica, who is Director of the new FabLab@BCS. David was an educator in 3-D graphics and 3-D printing at Stanford University’s Transformative Learning Technologies Lab. Here is what they said about the new facility and the thinking behind it:

Q:  Why a FabLab in an elementary school?

Wanny:  The FabLab is the natural next step for us. Our students are already tinkering and designing through project-based learning, but now they will be using the latest technologies to test their solutions. Instead of using cardboard and paper to create models, they can test their prototypes in 3-D simulations using the same innovative tools that are being used in the business world.

With the FabLab, we can nurture their natural interests and creativity by guiding them through the process of ideating, prototyping, and iterating in a school setting, regardless of their learning styles and abilities. Through failures and successes, there is a lot of learning that takes place, and lots of “ah-ha” moments. We have to provide time and opportunity for children to experience this on a regular basis. Through this, not only will their conceptual understandings be deeper and more meaningful, but they will also be constantly relearning and more willing to take risks because they are not fearful of failure.

Q:  How will the FabLab be used to teach children?

David: There are two stages in the design fabrication process in the FabLab. The first stage is skill-building, where we do workshops with the students and focus on a specific skill, like soldering, 3-D modeling, or sewing for soft circuits, laser-cutting, polymer casting, and visual programming.

Once they get the skills, we move to the second stage, which is the project-based learning stage. We put students in teams to go through the design thinking process (or a similar process) for a real-world situation and have them begin to generate solutions. In this stage, they are ideating, prototyping, iterating—all in their own way, at their own level. At the end of this stage, you don’t come out with test scores; you come out with a product that is looked at from a qualitative point of view. There is no correct answer. But through the process, students are learning and using a plethora of skills: engineering, design, programming, and computing, to name a few.

Q:  What is the philosophy of education behind the FabLab?

Wanny:  The best way for students to learn and stay engaged is through experiential learning—learning by doing. In this model, when students are working at their level of understanding and their areas of interest and passion, there is a freedom to try new ideas and solve problems, from which more questions and idea generation come. I have seen this in all children, regardless of ability or background. When students are engaged, learning becomes self-directed and fluid and continuous. But somehow, our current education system has stripped all of that natural interest and curiosity away from our students and replaced it with a model where students become passive learners.

The world is a place where every discipline is intertwined, so why would we teach children skills and information in isolation? At Bullis Charter, we teach through instructional methods like project-based learning and design thinking, where students apply knowledge to create solutions for real-world situations and problems using a process that is human-centered, more action-oriented, and authentic.

David:  We cannot overestimate the value of nurturing children’s interests and creativity when they are young. The National Education Longitudinal Study(1988) tracked the eventual career choices students made, and found that what was interesting for the students in elementary and middle school is what, in most cases, drove them to where they went in life—much more so than performance in specific subject areas like math. Traditionally, there have not been environments for collaboration and innovation to foster student interests in schools. If these are things that we want our children to have, then we should be creating spaces for this to take place.

Q:  What would a student’s typical day at the FabLab look like?

David: A student’s or group’s typical day will evolve with time. Initially, we will run workshops and demos to learn some foundation skills. For example, we could give a tutorial on 2-D/3-D computer-assisted design for students to follow, and we would assist them with questions. Or we could demonstrate the use of a technology such as 3-D scanning, and then take turns to have them try it while everyone else is working on their group project.

All this will be going on while they are working on a specific project-based learning unit or design thinking challenge with other classes and teachers. They will also have the opportunity to come to the lab after school hours. At some point, students will become familiar with a small set of technologies for their current project, so then a student’s typical day would evolve into a prototyping-heavy day. They would be working exclusively on constructing their projects with some teacher, parent, and mentor support, but there would be little or no instruction.

Q:  How does the Silicon Valley mindset influence the school?

Wanny: One of the greatest aspects of the Silicon Valley mindset is that everyone has a chance to be successful. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in the industry for 10 years, or if you are in high school. Anyone could make the next big “thing.” We have that same philosophy at the school. For example, we don’t just want to offer music to some students who sign-up for it—all students participate in the music program because we believe in the innate capacity of every single person. The same is true for our science and engineering programs like the FabLab.

The mindset of Silicon Valley focuses on radical collaborations, innovative thinking, entrepreneurialism, risk-taking, and learning from failures. Why wait until our children are adults to expose them to these opportunities? We provide the Silicon Valley environment for our students, starting in kindergarten.

Q:  How will these skills be useful for children in the future?

Wanny: Before I started the school, I went out and spoke with several different business leaders—CEOs, lawyers, financial investors—and asked them what they look for when they hire someone. The all responded with similar answers: they look for people who can communicate, collaborate, and work as part of a dynamic team. At our school, we are continually looking to see what the core competencies are that our students need to be successful, contributing members of our society. By focusing on and nourishing students’ interests, we are helping them become life-long learners and develop an appreciation for learning that can’t be achieved through traditional methods of teaching.

Q:  What can other schools learn from the FabLab concept and the BCS model?

Wanny: Creativity and excitement for figuring things out are natural human characteristics, ones that can and should be nurtured. Traditional teaching has somehow extinguished those traits in our schools. With ideas like the FabLab and the rest of our curriculum, we hope that we are showing what is possible in public education.

David:  What we are doing here can happen anywhere. We want schools to see that this is doable. We want them to take it to the parents and policymakers to generate change in our education system.

Victor W. Hwang is a venture capitalist, entrepreneur, and ecosystem designer in Silicon Valley with T2 Venture Creation.  He is co-creator of Rainforest Architects, a workshop for those seeking to unleash the innovative potential of companies, communities, and countries. Follow him at @rainforestbook.

BCS Choirs Earn High Marks at CMEA Music Festival

Bullis Charter School’s four choirs earned honors for their performances at the annual California Music Education Association’s Bay Area Music Festival at Saratoga High School May 11.

The choirs, comprising more than 145 students, have practiced twice a week before or after school since September.

The Treble Voices Choir (grades 1-3) received a unanimous Superior score, the highest possible. The G-Clef (grades 4-5) and Sonore choirs (students in grades 4-6 who practice during their lunch hour) also earned a Superior score, and the Cambiata Choir (grades 6-8) an Excellent.

“Our choirs operate under the philosophy that anyone who wants to sing can sing and sing well,” said David Belles, the charter school’s music specialist and choral director. “I have yet to meet a student who cannot sing. The hard work, drive and dedication of each member of these ensembles are what keep this program flourishing.”

The California Music Education Association promotes music education in schools, sponsors festivals and other musical activities, and provides information, training and an exchange of ideas for music educators.

“My children get very little exposure to the arts outside of school,” said Denise Denney, whose three children attend Bullis Charter School. “Rehearsing at school at 7:30 a.m. twice a week taught them real dedication.”

Denney said competing in the music festival and hearing the performances of other choirs gave students a “tremendous appreciation for music.”

We wouldn’t have been able to teach them that unique appreciation on our own,” she added.

BCS Adds ‘FabLab’ to Curriculum Next Year

Bullis Charter School is scheduled to introduce a “FabLab,” or Fabrication Laboratory, next year that allows students access to the newest trends in technology.

The lab, which will be located on the charter school’s portion of the Blach Intermediate School campus, will be outfitted with easy-to-use, age-appropriate tools that promote scientific modeling and simulations and equipment for robotics, sensing and digital fabrication.

Innovation through technology has been the cornerstone of the charter school’s mission since its inception more than nine years ago, according to Superintendent/Principal Wanny Hersey.

“Silicon Valley is the technological hub of our planet,” she said. “As the Valley redefines itself every few years with new technologies, so must we as educators to bring the most innovative and thought-provoking curriculum to our students to be citizens.”

David Malpica, who led Stanford University’s Transformative Learning Technologies Lab and served as resident expert in 3-D graphics and 3-D printing for education, will oversee the program. Malpica earned a master’s degree in education with an emphasis on learning, design and technology. He studied under Paulo Blikstein, who in 2009 developed the idea of “FabLabs” in schools as a way to put cutting-edge technology for design and construction in the hands of middle and high school students.

“As an example, imagine exploring the human body through 3-D and holographs,” Malpica said. “Instead of studying the human body in books, students will have the opportunity to experience firsthand biological functions like never before. Additionally, this technology can be used to explore, create and interface with other disciplines like art, history, math, reading and music.”

Bullis Charter School teachers are currently working alongside Malpica to develop units that integrate the tools in ways that engage students and hone their 21st-century skills via real-world application.

“Access to these tools also gives those students who might not normally engage with paper-and-pencil learning a unique opportunity to re-engage in the learning process,” said Rebecca Young, fifth-grade teacher at Bullis Charter School.

“I’m thrilled that my children are going to have so many different opportunities to learn about and explore our world,” said Vicki Lee, mother of three charter school students. “I’m so grateful that the teachers and administrators continually put their students, our children, first and think outside the box to help them grow.”

The charter school strives to incorporate innovative technologies into its curriculum, including project-based learning and design thinking.

“We are poised to seize this tremendous opportunity with a dedicated space for innovation,” said Ken Moore, chairman of the charter school’s board of directors. “We envision each student spending meaningful time in this new laboratory. We look forward to sharing more plans as our teachers and administrators work to develop curricula.”

Bullis Reaches Milestone

The very first class of students to make its way from first through eighth grade at Bullis Charter School matriculated last week.

“This is a particularly exciting event for us,” Wanny Hersey, superintendent and principal of BCS, said of the milestone, which was commemorated with a June 7 afternoon ceremony. “Not only has it been an extremely successful class, in terms of academic achievement, but the students were also the ones who helped us pioneer our innovative curriculum.”

Six of the 24 graduating students in the eighth­grade class of 2012 started their academic careers at Bullis, winding their way all the way up through the school’s “comprehensive and integrated” program, Hersey said.

Hearing the students speak at the commencement ceremony was vindicating for Hersey, who said it was great to watch “a very full, well­balanced, articulate group of young people who are able to really recognize the benefits of the special program they were involved with.”

That “special program,” according to the charter school’s mission statement “offers a collaborative, experimental learning environment that emphasizes individual student achievement and inspires children, faculty and staff to reach beyond themselves.” According to Hersey, the school’s faculty and staff aim to create 21st century citizens, ready to excel in a variety of fields ­­ not just one specialized area of expertise. The world today demands that young people entering the workforce be comfortable working on their own or on teams, and understanding right­brained “creatives,” left­brained analytical thinkers, and all types of people in between.

To prepare students to be able to thrive in the modern world, school officials designed a curriculum where all classes ­­ from science to history to art to writing ­­ intersect and overlap. Additionally, students learn from mentors in the fields they are studying. Application developers, biologists, engineers and finance experts all have visited classes at Bullis.

Lynn Steffens, who sent all four of her daughters to Bullis, said the school’s integrated approach clearly made a difference in the development of her children, especially her youngest ­­ the only one to go through her entire primary education at the charter school.

Steffens, who was able to compare her older daughters’ experiences against her youngest, said the integrated program at Bullis took her kids “a lot deeper” than traditional school programs. The overlapping curriculum and size of the school also make for a much more intimate learning experience, where all of the teachers know all of the students, she said.

“When the kids are going through it, over time they really get to know the whole school community,” she said. “It makes a big difference throughout the year. That’s a very hard thing for a traditional school to do regardless of the caliber of the school.”

Perhaps the biggest difference Steffens noted with her youngest child was the positive attitude she had about school. When she asked her older daughters how their day went, all she would get in return was a grunt.

“My youngest gets in the car and says, ‘This is what we’re working on in school and did you know this, mom?'” she said. “She is so engaged in the academics and she is excited to learn more.”

“They just hold themselves to a higher expectation at that school,” Steffens said.

Most of the BCS eighth ­grade graduates will attend high schools in Los Altos, Mountain View or Palo Alto.

Bullis Holds Its First Graduation

After a busy year visiting China, London and Costa Rica, 24 eighth-graders at Bullis Charter School in Los Altos said goodbye yesterday, becoming the first graduating class from the charter school since its founding in 2003. It was an occasion that school leaders had been anticipating for the past nine years.

“You’ve paved the way for thousands of other students who will follow you,” said school board member John Phelps, whose daughter, Sonnet, was among the school’s 24 graduating eighth-graders.

“You are examples of what’s possible in public education,” Phelps added. According to Principal Wanny Hersey, the charter school was formed nine years ago as an alternative to the structured learning environment of standard public schools.

“We didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing,” Hersey said in a speech to eighth-grade students and their parents.

A unique approach

Jim Kermode, eighth-grader Gina Kermode’s father, said that the school took a diverse approach to education — one that “folds in all of the different subjects” into one classroom.

Graduating student Caroline Steffens said she thought the school’s unique approach to learning was one of its greatest strengths and one she would miss when attending high school next year.

“The thing I’m going to miss most about BCS is the learning environment,” Steffens said in a video played to the audience at the ceremony.

Over the course of the year, eighth-grade students had the opportunity to travel to China, to learn about pandas and diverse cultures; London, to learn about Shakespeare and American beginnings; and Costa Rica, to learn about Leatherback sea turtles.

The trip to China was student Ian Davoren’s favorite memory.

“We got to see their homes and their neighborhoods, which were really affected by the earthquake,” Davoren said, referring to the deadly 7.1-magnitude earthquake that hit western China in April.

Despite the fun-filled year, Karna Chelluri said what he would miss the most was his close-knit eighth-grade classmates.

“Having just 24 kids in your class, you get to know all of them,” Chelluri said. “And I’m really going to miss them.”

Right before they received their diplomas, the students serenaded parents and school officials with the song “I’ll Always Remember You,” by Miley Cyrus.

On to high school

And, although it was sad for students to say good- bye to a familiar campus and the friends they made while on it, they were also glad to be taking the leap to high school.

“We’re just very excited,” said Jim Kermode, whose daughter, Gina, had just received her diploma. Kermode said that his daughter will attend Los Altos High School next year.

As the students move on to different campuses, Principal Hersey hoped that they would carry Bullis’ values with them.

“My dream for you is that you will always continue to live life with passion and wonder, every single day,” Hersey said.

Bullis Graduates Its First 8th Grade Class Thursday

Caroline Steffens, 14, sits with her classmate, Gina Kermode,13, and looks around at the pale yellow portable buildings, the playing fields just beyond them, the garden behind her.

This is their house, Bullis Charter School. It’s all so familiar to the reigning 8th graders. And it’s all going to change soon.

“I’ve been on this campus my entire life, I always think about that,” she said. That’s nine years for Caroline, who started as a kindergartener when Santa Rita School was temporarily housed at this location, and the charter school was being planned. It’s been eight years, for Gina, who came the year after. Both agree, it’s been a great place to grow.

On Thursday, Caroline and Gina will join 22 of their classmates at BCS and become its first 8th grade graduating class, completing a dream for the program held since the school doors opened in 2004.

Their first-grade class had only 20 students that inaugural year, six of whom are graduating with the 8th grade class. The entire K-6 school had 170 children then.

They’ve seen a lot of changes, they said. Good changes.

“We have more people, new play structures, more lawn,” said Caroline.

“With experience, the curriculum gets better and better, said Gina. “I like that it’s small enough that you know everyone but not too small. It’s the right size.”

This week, with graduation on their minds, they took a moment to reflect on their experiences.

The teacher-student relationships. The ability to give feedback and see adjustments made to improve their learning. The opportunities.

“I think of all the opportunities that were given me,” Caroline said. “I definitely learned about passions I want to pursue.”

And they’ve learned a lot about themselves and their learning. They have become used to giving feedback—to their teachers, to their peers—and seeing adjustments made, or making them themselves in their group work.

“Group work and project work is big at our school,” Gina said “It’s important to work as a team. Project work is important, too, to learn how to meet deadlines.”

In the small groups they work in, they’ve learned to hold each other accountable if there is slack off, and find other tasks to assign.

They like that teachers make adjustments if the individual is having difficulty learning a certain way. Caroline was having difficulty in history last year, and benefited from her teacher giving her tools that gave her other ways to understand the concepts. In science class, Gina said, students got a special paper to work with for notes. “I said, this is not going to work for me,” she said. On the other hand, it worked really well for Caroline, making her notes more organized. The teacher’s response was to ask other kids whether they experienced the same problem, and made it an option to use the new paper.

The teacher-student relationships have been key, said Caroline. It’s allowed her to learn so much better. And teachers care, both girls agreed, giggling about how their teacher even taught them a little ditty about the quadratic formula they could sing to themselves during the STAR test to help cue them through their nervousness.

And they’ve been given opportunities to create and take charge in a big way. During intercession last year, they were given the Bus Barn

Theater to use, and asked to put on “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream.” By themselves. Casting, sets, rehearsals, everything.

“You support these educators and give them resources they need and they fly—and the kids fly,” said Bullis principal Wanny Hersey.

“This is a group of students who are supportive of each other … they learn how to set goals, how to reflect and adjust, they learn that failure is an opportunity.

“That’s what I see.”

When the year first started, Gina said she was thinking far ahead. “In the beginning I thought, ‘The faster I get out of here the better,” she said. Now, she’s feeling excited and nervous and nostalgic.

“It’s really like a family, I really started to notice that this year,” she said. “I’m going to miss how everyone is so close.”

The coming year brings high school, a move from “the small fishbowl” to “the big lake,” they agreed. Trepidations aside, they’re ready. Graduation, no doubt, will be cool.

“I’ve been proud of all the things I’ve done here,” Caroline said. “There’s not one thing I wished I’d done. I have no regrets.”

Bullis Charter School Hosts Charter School Junior Olympics

Bullis Charter School hosted more than 900 K­8 students from six Bay Area charter schools for the third Charter School Invitational Junior Olympics, held May 19 at Foothill College.

“We were proud to host the Junior Olympics to foster collaboration between charter schools in our community,” said Anne Marie Gallagher, Bullis Charter School board member. “Watching the students strive to achieve their personal best and witnessing their great sportsmanship and camaraderie was tremendously inspiring for all involved.”

Bullis Charter School initiated the event four years ago to bring the area’s charter schools together to celebrate community and build closer relationships. Participating schools this year included Charter School of Morgan Hill, Livermore Valley Charter School, Magnolia Science Academy, Rocketship Discovery and Rocketship Sí Se Puede Academy.

Echoing the traditions of the international Olympic Games, opening ceremonies included a performance of the national anthem by an a cappella student group, a staff and student athlete procession, and rhythmic gymnastics and color guard performances.

The day’s events included running relays (100 meter), individual track events (50m, 100m, 400m, 800m and 1,600m) and field events (broad jump, shot put and javelin) and nontraditional activities such as soccer and football kicks, egg­and­spoon relays and basketball throws.

Students of all ages prepared for the events since fall, discovering new passions and abilities.

“As an achievement­gap­closing school, we feel very fortunate to be able to provide our students with such an enriching opportunity and can’t wait to participate next time,” said Kelly Natoli, specialist from Rocketship Sí Se Puede. “The Olympics were a great experience for our students.”

Students wrote letters to former Olympians inviting them to attend. Kent Mitchell, U.S. bronze (1960) and gold (1964) medalist for rowing; Dana Kirk, U.S. Olympic swimmer (2004); Paige Gordon, Canadian Olympic diver (1992 and 1996); and Eddie Parenti, Canadian Olympic swimmer (1992 and 1996) attended the event. Mitchell, wearing his gold medal and USA sweatsuit, led the Olympic Oath, and all four Olympians cheered on participants and awarded medals throughout the day.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there are several future Olympians in this stadium today,” Mitchell said.

“This feels like we’re already in London at the real Olympics,” said one student athlete.

In keeping with the spirit of fellowship and good sportsmanship, students made new friends while exchanging school­colored friendship bracelets during the course of the day. An electric torch, passed through the schools over the previous six weeks, finished its journey with a relay around the track by outstanding citizens from each school. At the end of the event, staff members competed in a relay.

More than 300 staff and parent volunteers, representing all participating schools, donated more than 3,000 hours to event.

Bullis Charter Students Help Homeless

When it came time to organize the annual winter holiday party in her daughter’s first ­grade class at Bullis Charter School, Christina Mireles wanted to help the students celebrate the holidays in a way that didn’t involve making styrofoam snowmen.

Searching on the United Way website for a meaningful way for children to give back to the community, she discovered EHC LifeBuilders in Sunnyvale.

Working with classroom teacher Nancy Barlow during the weekly “Writer’s Workshop,” Mireles described to the 20 first­graders how at the EHC LifeBuilders shelter, clients in need arrive in the late afternoon, sleep for the night and then eat breakfast in the morning. The shelter then provides everyone a small snack for the day when they leave at 6 a.m.

After consulting with Elizabeth Griswold, community relations specialist at EHC LifeBuilders, Mireles suggested to the students that they provide a midday snack for 125 adults for one day.

The class discussed how serving others relates to the school’s integrated character pillars – Citizenship, Fairness and Respect.

The children brainstormed ideas for stores from which they could ask for donations and composed request letters. Their letters generated more than $170 in gift­card donations from Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Draeger’s Market and Target, as well as perishable donations from De Martini Orchards, Andronico’s and Starbucks.

Anagha Jain, mother of a third­grader at BCS, recruited her daughter’s class to participate in the project by creating 125 handmade cards with holiday wishes and words of encouragement. During their holiday party time, the classes collaborated to decorate and fill 125 bags with snacks, which were delivered to EHC LifeBuilders.

Griswold said her clients were “touched by the handmade cards and appreciated the fresh fruit in particular.”

An abundance of donations enabled the students to contribute additional items to the shelter, including 12 pounds of brown sugar, raisins and men’s socks.

First ­grader Amina Hurd said the experience made her feel “really happy.”

“I felt thankful because they had what they needed to survive,” she said. “And they wouldn’t be hungry anymore.”

“Our students gained a simple yet profound understanding of helping others,” said third­grade teacher Margaret Lim. “They learned that hard times can cause many people to lose what they have. I loved seeing their hearts reach out to others.”

Bullis Appeal May Have Far-Reaching Impact in State

Late Thursday afternoon, the news rippled rapidly across Los Altos, parts of Mountain View, Los Altos Hills—and even beyond, to the legions of specialists who advise charter schools and school districts: The Sixth District Court of Appeal unexpectedly overturned a ruling that upheld the school district in a dispute with Bullis Charter School over facilities space.

Stunningly, the state appeals court had found against the Los Altos School District (LASD) in how it measured school facilities to determine what was “reasonably equivalent” to provide Bullis, in fulfillment of Proposition 39 regulations. Four other lower court cases had upheld the district.

“We’re certainly looking at all our options,” said a disappointed Bill Cooper, president of the LASD board. “But it would be premature to put a definitive stake in the ground.”

And it wasn’t just Bullis Charter School nor Los Altos School district officials who would be thinking about this turn of events over the weekend, contemplating what was next.

The published decision was clearly intended to have impact far beyond Los Altos.

“I have to read this decision over the weekend …it’s something I have to be aware of, said Ed Sklar, an attorney with Lozano Smith in Walnut Creek, who represents school districts complying with Prop. 39.

In fact, Tuesday is the deadline for charter schools across the state to submit their requests for facilities for the 2012-2013 school year to their host districts, so the court’s ruling will likely become part of the discussion of Prop. 39 requests very soon, Sklar said.

“We will be looking to this decision to see if there’s any further instruction to give to clients,” he added.

Representatives of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), which had submitted a 35-page friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Bullis appeal were also expecting to use the decision in its work.

“It will be very helpful in our statewide efforts,” said Julie Ashby Umansky, vice president for legal advocacy at the CCSA. “We’re really pleased by it. “

Prop. 39 was passed by voters in 2000. It provides that charter schools are offered  facilities with “conditions reasonably equivalent” to what students would receive if they were attending other public schools in the district, and that facilities must be shared with all students of the district.

Prop. 39 compliance is also the main topic that lands charter schools in court against school districts. At any given time, there might be about five or six cases involving Prop. 39 up and down the state, Umansky said.

The court, in publishing its ruling, and addressing at length the way the Los Altos School District measured facilities space and where it was found lacking, was attempting to bring guidance to the contentious topic, and in particular what “reasonable equivalence” means.

Despite the number of Prop. 39 cases that get filed, none have given guidance to “reasonable equivalence,” Umansky said. It has been a big issue with charter schools, who are seeking facilities space from the very districts with which they are competing, she said. The CCSA’s experience, she said, is that districts often show a pattern of responses that serve to undercount facilties space, spread out charter facilties all over a district, and essentially result in unfair allocation of space for students.

“I was very impressed with the clarity with which the justices covered all of the issues,” said Bullis Charter School president Ken Moore, calling the ruling “tremendous.” Moore added that it was the first time, through four lawsuits, that a court had taken the time to look at the actual calculations of space available in a district, rather than take the district’s assessment of space on face value.

There is some disagreement about the broader impact of the ruling beyond Los Altos.

“I read it expecting lots of clarity,” said Stephanie Farland, who was the senior policy consultant for the California School Boards Association for a dozen years, primarily involving charter schools. Farland now is a consultantassisting “charter school authorizers,” such as school districts and county boards of education, in submitting charter school petitions, applying for renewals, and annual reviews.

“It just seemed like it provided more confusion.” Because there is a 2005  appeals court decision in Kern County (Ridgecrest Charter School v. Sierra Sands Unified School District) that accepted that school district’s assessment of facilities space without challenge, she’s a bit unsure which would have precedence.

One thing is sure: As the weeks go on, the decision will be finely examined by any charter school in the state that is unhappy with its space allotment and any school district that must respond with an offer.

The districts must make their preliminary offer to charter schools by Feb. 1, so the coming weeks will bring much discussion.

While only the Los Altos School District Board trustees know what the next step is, Moore is hoping that the 2012-2013 request for facilities space is met with an adequate offer.

“I expect LASD to rectify its non-compliance and look forward to where we’re given reasonably equivalent school site in time for the next school year,” he said.

Creative Charter School Wins Renewal

Even after it won a 5-2 vote last week from the county Board of Education to renew its charter for five years, Bullis Charter School is still trying to overcome the elitist image stuck on the school when it opened for business about five years ago after a messy divorce from the Los Altos School District.

But after a slow start, the 465-student K-8 school has been able to outperform every other charter school in the state despite receiving $4,000 less per student in public funding than its compatriots in the Los Altos Elementary School District. Parents and the school foundation make up the difference so Bullis ends up with just over $11,000 per student, slightly less that the Los Altos district.

(We should also note that Bullis and the Los Altos district are involved in a lawsuit over whether the buildings provided to Bullis are adequate. An appeals court decision should be made public in about two months.)

Two of the seven county Board of Education members voted against renewing the Bullis charter, citing concerns about the school not working hard enough to recruit students of color from Los Altos and Mountain View, while filling most of its seats from the wealthy Los Altos Hills area. The charges are strongly disputed by Bullis officials, who provided numerous statistics to the contrary in their application for county approval.

For starters, charter schools are expected to reflect the community they serve, said the county board member Anna Song and Los Altos School District board member Tammy Logan. On that score, we believe Bullis hits a home run, with a far lower percentage of white students than the Los Altos district (67.7 to 51.6 percent for Bullis) and equal numbers for African American, Asian, and Native Hawaiians. Students of two or more races attend Bullis in much higher numbers than the district as a whole, (20.6 to 4.4 percent). A slightly lower percentage of Hispanic students were counted than attend district schools (5.2 to 5.6 percent), but that is hardly worth quibbling about.

We also disagree with the charge that recruiters at Bullis do not actively recruit in Mountain View and Los Altos. For the current school year, the school received 680 applications from students at 98 preschools and 133 elementary schools, with six students applying for every available seat. The school hosts a public lottery and randomly selects the incoming students. And in the current year, 30 special education students (6.5 percent) attended Bullis, more than twice the number from two years ago.

Charter schools like Bullis are succeeding in other districts on the Peninsula. Summit Prep, a high school located in Redwood City, faced similar critics when it was launched by a handful of parents from the affluent community of Portola Valley. And after enduring criticism that it was designed as a private “public” school for elite students, Summit’s lottery has muffled that charge and is proud that 100 percent of their graduating seniors are admitted to four-year colleges.

Small charter schools like Bullis can be laboratories of innovation, as well as home to students who might not fit in at more traditional schools. As a charter school, Bullis is able to create a unique and challenging educational experience for its students that could be a model for the Los Altos district to emulate. The county Board of Education made the right decision to give Bullis another five years.