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Can Monte del Sol’s original vision survive today’s learning environment?

August 4, 2010, 1:00 am

Ritchie’s arrival may have thrown Monte del Sol’s identity crisis into stark relief, but some believe it may have been inevitable.

Randy Merker, who taught at Monte del Sol from its founding until this year, says the current conflict is merely “exposing a lot of historic factionalization in the school.”

And the debate at Monte del Sol, he says, is happening everywhere.

“There are people who believe testing is a reasonable measure of student and school success,” Merker says. “[In] the first three or four years, we were much more interested in student-centered, project-based learning—a lot more concerned about specific student interest and desire in their own education,” he explains. “That’s not true now.”

Grover says that’s every charter school’s constant battle.

“What charter schools are really doing at their very heart is changing the way we think about public education,” she says. “There is a constant push-back of trying to make charters look like every other public school,” Grover adds. “They’re not supposed to be, and they don’t want to be. If they wanted business as usual, they would not have chosen to work in a charter school environment.”

Because charter schools see themselves as the vanguard, Grover says, they’re often populated and maintained by very passionate teachers, students and parents—and it will always be hard to reconcile the drive to revolutionize public education with the need to work within its confines.

Yet while schools are currently tied to this need to meet and maintain AYP, the broader, national picture may be shifting.

This March, the Obama administration released its “blueprint” for reauthorizing the Education and Secondary Education Act, the original basis for NCLB.

“They’re putting forward new ideas and building off accountability and reform,” Brooks Garber, federal policy vice president for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says. Some of the reauthorization goals, Garber says, will include better modeling for teacher effectiveness, transitioning AYP to “college and career readiness” and rewarding excellence.

Gerlicz, for his part, believes NCLB will change.

“[US Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan and company already know it is a flawed system of reform,” Gerlicz writes.

Those changes are unlikely to come soon enough to affect Monte del Sol’s immediate future. That rests largely with Ritchie.

This June, after fielding the types of complaints voiced in this story, Ruiz says the school’s governing board opted to renew Ritchie’s contract for only one year, with measurable benchmarks—he’s reluctant to call them “conditions”—for her to achieve better harmony with the school community.

Of 301 prospective students in the lottery to enter Monte del Sol’s 7th grade class this year, 68 have received spots.
Credits: Photo: Alexa Schirtzinger

Around December, Ruiz says, the board will check in to make sure Ritchie is achieving the objectives outlined in her contract.

It’s an ironic echo of the very flash point that’s dividing the school: whether a set of measurable benchmarks—test scores, a restructuring plan, a provisional contract—can actually make things better.

When asked about her contract, Ritchie denied that it was punitive. Instead, she described it as the first stage of a process to formalize the school’s personnel system.

“We’re creating clearer job descriptions for every position,” Ritchie says. “When I came, there were no job descriptions written. I wanted, and I’m sure everyone wants, a job description with measurable goals.”

Ritchie says all school administrators now have well-defined objectives. When the teachers return from summer break—school starts Aug. 23—she’ll begin working on establishing similar benchmarks for them.

The goal, in Ritchie’s view?

“Just a little bit tighter ship.”  SFR

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