Charter high school for science and technology approved

07/29/2014 7:57 PM

07/29/2014 9:29 PM

A charter school for high school students focusing primarily on science, technology, engineering and mathematics will open in 13 months, but the move is opposed by a number of local school district superintendents.

The Merced County Board of Education voted unanimously Monday afternoon to approve a petition creating the Merced Area STEM school. Organizers are hoping to open with 100 freshmen and sophomore students, adding juniors and seniors in succeeding years, with a target enrollment of 200 students in the 2018 school year. It will be run by the county schools office.

Scott Scambray, Merced Union High School District superintendent, said he didn’t think it was the position of the Merced County Office of Education to draw students away from local schools.

“I was hoping we could have worked together,” Scambray said. “I’m surprised input was not taken before the decision was made. We think we offer a top-notch program as far as STEM goes. They will do what they will do.”

Steve Gomes, county superintendent of schools, said he is excited that the Merced County Education Foundation, an independent, philanthropic, fundraising arm of the county schools office, proposed launching the charter school. He said the foundation will apply for a $500,000 federal planning grant administered through the state Department of Education to get the school started.

“The STEM school has the potential to increase the focus on STEM countywide,” Gomes said. “I especially like the fact the goal is to have all the students graduate from a college or university.”

Gomes previously said local school districts are doing a good job with STEM education programs but none offers a comprehensive package of science, technology, engineering and math courses like those planned for the new school.

RoseMary Parga Duran, Merced City School District superintendent, said the STEM school doesn’t make sense.

“Their job is to be a resource for all 20 county school districts,” she said of the plan to develop a competing school. “I wish them luck moving forward from there.”

School superintendents previously expressed concerns about the county schools office competing with local districts, the loss of top-notch students from their programs and a possible decline in average daily attendance funding from the state.

Jeanne Knapp, coordinator of the area STEM school, said she expects to have at least 100 students when the new charter school opens. She said it will be located at the MCOE Educational Center on Wardrobe Avenue in Merced. Initially, it will be staffed by four teachers.

Knapp said MASS will offer a unique program that’s not for every student. She said she will work with families to make the right choice on education options, and more details will be available as development of the new charter school moves forward.

Adam Cox, a member of the Merced City School District Board of Education and a vocal opponent of Gomes’ proposal, didn’t mince words when he heard the plan had been approved.

“This says a lot about the county office and the superintendent,” Cox said. “They don’t believe local school districts are equipped to educate our kids. His job is to help us, not compete against us. It’s very disappointing.”

Cox said he is concerned the STEM school idea will expand to the lower grades. His district serves kindergarten through eighth-grade students.

Sandy Schiber, Atwater Elementary School District superintendent, said it’s difficult to find science and math teachers, adding that the new school will make it even tougher to fill those vacancies.

“That’s worrisome to me,” Schiber said. “No one argues that STEM education isn’t important. Local school districts have made a focus and vision to create STEM opportunities. We’re all supposed to work together.”

A memorandum of understanding for development of the charter school was created between the foundation and MCOE. Before Monday’s approval, the charter petition review process was conducted by MCOE staff and an outside consultant.

A 180-day school year, class sizes of about 25 students and an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. school day are planned. During the coming months, partnerships with business, education and the community will be expanded.

Grants, donations and other funds will be sought to supplement traditional average daily attendance funding that public high schools receive from the state.

Knapp said any individual, business or organization with questions or interest in a MASS informational presentation or partnership development, should contact her at (209) 381-6757 or jknapp@mcoe.org for more information.

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