The future of Great Valley Academy came into focus Tuesday as the Stanislaus County Board of Education gave the go-ahead for the visual-learning charter school to open this fall.
Modesto optometrist and school chief executive Eldon Rosenow will have six months to secure a campus and hire teachers for Great Valley, which he said will enroll about 400 students in kindergarten through fourth grade in August.
The board voted 4-1 to approve Great Valley Academy, reversing a July decision against it.
"I was getting a little shaky. I think I have 50 more gray hairs," Rosenow said after the vote, which prompted tears, hugs and a big exhale of relief from supporters.
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Vice Chairman Merle Kronberg cast the dissenting vote. Other board members joined Kronberg in voicing concerns that low-income families might be deterred from enrolling their children, because busing and federally subsidized lunches are not included among Great Valley's programs.
"I'm kind of concerned that this appears more of an exclusive school than an inclusive school," Kronberg said.
Great Valley will be the 20th charter school
in Stanislaus County, according to the state Department of Education. About half are classroom-based charter schools, and the others provide support for home-schooled children.
A charter school is a tuition-free public school that operates on state money, but educators have more control over curriculum and can enroll students from a larger area. Charter schools operate under a contract, or charter, with a school district, county office of education, university or state.
The county Board of Education approved a three-year agreement with Great Valley, rather than the maximum five-year term.
Parent: 'I have goosebumps'
A small group of parents accompanied Rosenow to Tuesday's public hearing. The school's Web site quickly was updated to announce "We Did It!"
"I have goosebumps," said Francesca Orr, who plans to enroll her daughter at Great Valley for its first year. "I just feel this is going to be a utopian school where our kids will be safe. It's just beyond thrilling that our children will have access to this."
County Schools Superintendent Tom Changnon continued to stress his support for Great Valley's visual approach to learning and problem solving.
"We're not producing the results our citizens and taxpayers are counting on," Changnon said.
Great Valley models its curriculum after a Michigan charter school, which also was developed by an optometrist with an interest in neuroscience.
The school's proposal shakes up some of the traditional rules of public schools, including a longer school day and less homework. Students don't move to the next grade until they master a subject, earning a grade of B or better, so classrooms could house children of varying ages.
Tuesday's vote was the second time the Great Valley proposal came before the county Board of Education.
The board had voted to deny the petition in July, just a month before leaders wanted to open the school. In response, parents and teachers fired off hundreds of angry e-mails and phone calls to board members and The Bee.
County Board Chairman Luis Molina, who voted to deny the petition the first time around, had told organizers that a local school district should consider the charter before it came back before the county.
The Sylvan Union School District denied Great Valley's charter petition in November, which allowed organizers to file an appeal with the county Office of Education.
In a response, Sylvan termed the Great Valley proposal "unrealistic" in its financial and operational plan, and Superintendent John Halverson said it was the district's belief the school "would be unlikely to be successful." He said there was no data given to back up the efficacy of the visual-based curriculum program, called Integrated Visual Learning, in the classroom.
Great Valley applied to Sylvan because the proposed school site, the former Modesto Christian Elementary School at Tully Road and Woodrow Avenue, is within the district's boundary.
Rosenow said he is considering two other sites to house Great Valley, but declined to name them.
Board members said they were reticent to approve a new charter school as a state budget proposal to slash education funding threatens existing county schools.
"We could have districts that go bankrupt, that's our reality," Molina said.
Dana Goddard, a parent supporter, praised the board for taking a chance on the school during tough budget times.
"I'm so thankful it's going to be out there," Goddard said. "It's not the best of times, but they're willing to put themselves out there."
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.