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Charter school part of growing trend

Statewide student enrollment jumps 200,000 this year

Posted: September 3, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 3, 2012 2:00 a.m.

A combination class of fourth- and fifth-graders draw their thoughts while listening to music in a classroom at SCVi in Castaic on Thursday.

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 There are facilitators, learners and wide-open spaces.

IPads help, too, replacing the need for a voluminous collection of leather-bound encyclopedias.

Yes, Santa Clarita Valley International Charter School’s Castaic classrooms differ quite a bit from the traditional pupil-and-chalkboard setting, which was part of the motivation when the school was opened, according to SCVi co-founder Amber Raskin.

School bells resumed ringing last week at Santa Clarita Valley International, kicking off the charter school’s fifth school year. And with the bells came about 100 new students, putting SCVi’s enrollment trend squarely with others in the charter school ranks — the fastest growing sector in the educational realm, by far.

It’s also a far cry from what Raskin says she pictured when she started the school — a one-room community school a la “Little House on the Prairie.”

“I literally thought we’d have about 30 kids,” Raskin said. “That’s what I thought back in (2008). It’s really surprised me. In the lowest grades, we have 22 students per class and then 25-27 per class in the middle grades through high school.”

Charter schools receive approval from a district under certain criteria that are set forth by the district. The William S, Hart Union High School district oversees SCVi

Charter school enrollments jumped statewide by 200,000 students this year, according to figures from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Raskin and Dawn Evenson, a longtime educator who co-founded SCVi, have experienced the exponential growth firsthand. In 2008, the school started with 135 students, and then its population quickly tripled.

That’s when Rasken and Evenson realized the larger concern would not be whether parents and students are buying in to their chartered, alternative public educational plan — it would be managing the demand.

They’ve since slowed down the school’s pace of growth and now count hundreds on the waiting list.

Curriculum

The school’s general learning plan is one that encourages a cooperative, hands-on, project-based type of education compared to a traditional classroom, said Carol Stevenson, a parent of two SCVi students who also works for the school.

The state’s academic standards are taught — adhering to the requirements that any charter must face — but they’re also expanded upon. And the implementation is fairly novel in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Teachers are known as facilitators; students are learners.

“We still get the STAR testing done, and we still get the foundation, but it’s got to be about more than a foundation and good test scores,” Raskin said.

With so much information out there, a front-of-the-room, read-from-a-text stance is not adequate to get students to learn what they need to be successful, Raskin contends.

“There’s so much knowledge being learned every hour; there’s no way you can split it up into 13 years any more,” she said. “We need to teach them the skills to gain knowledge.”

The learning is geared toward grouping children together and encouraging them to use more modern informational tools, such as their iPads and the Internet, cooperatively.

This networking approach also includes an emphasis on the “soft skills,” such as language and communication, which Raskin says are not well-addressed in traditional classroom settings.

The difference

With that in mind, SCVi’s Hasley Canyon campus now has space designed for the school’s philosophy. There are not strict divisions between classrooms for the 680-student schoolhouse, which administers to an additional 140 home-schooled students.

An open space in the center of the floor is supplemented by originally designed study areas.

“They have unique areas. One is called ‘the cave,’ an off-to-the-side learning area for kids to gather and learn on their own,” said Matt Bernstein of Santa Clarita, an SCVi parent.

While the first real test of the SCVi curriculum may not come until its 11th-grade class, the school’s most senior group, hits college in two years, many parents and students say the school has played a big role in changing the academic experience.

“I love this school — it absolutely made me fall in love with school,” said Amanda Lopez, a 16-year-old junior at SCVi’s high school.

Lopez was attending a Sylmar junior high that she dreaded going to before she moved to Valencia to live with her grandmother and discovered SCVi.

“They don’t just teach you a subject, they teach you how to learn about a subject,” Lopez said. “You might think, ‘Where in the real world am I going to use calculus?’ But they teach things in a way where they might be used,” she said, describing her project-based learning.

For Raskin, the most prevalent feedback from parents is a comment on the sense of community the school develops from its group approach.

“What I hear from parents anecdotally is that they want a safe school,” Raskin said. “They want a school that has a real no-bullying policy, and they want a school where (students are) free to learn.”

psmith@the-signal.com

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