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 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.