Turlock charter school born of tough cases, shared goals

The city’s first independent charter school will focus on struggling teens who need extra services and tailored instruction. In a rare collaboration, an outside agency designed the charter with input from the area’s traditional school district.

“We don’t normally support charter schools. We think our schools can do a great job for 99 percent of our kids. But there are some kids with severe emotional problems that we and county schools just don’t have a spot for,” said Turlock Unified Superintendent Sonny Da Marto.

The district approached nonprofit Aspiranet, which has run programs for youths with behavioral and emotional problems in Turlock since 1989. They are Stanislaus Academy and Valley Oaks private schools and the Excell Center Campus residential treatment program. Children with special needs that public schools cannot meet may be placed in private schools at district expense.

Not all high-needs children qualify for such placements, and those kids can fall between the cracks. A public charter school, however, is open to all and gets its funding from the state, Da Marto said.

“In the long run, it will be a great thing for our kids and a little less expensive for us,” he said.

The charter school, Aspiranet’s first, will incorporate services, expertise and a transition-to-work grant from existing Aspiranet programs, said Fusion Charter Principal Siobhan Hanna.

“This will be another educational opportunity,” Hanna said. “We have to meet the needs. These are kids who have a difficult time in school. We’re going to have a lot of creative programming. That’s our goal, a lot of options.”

The Turlock Unified School District Board approved Fusion Charter’s application June 30 without dissent. The district approved the application for three years rather than the requested five. The vote was four for the school, with Frank Lima and Harinder Grewal absent and Eileen Hamilton abstaining.

Hamilton said later that she sits on the board of Creative Alternatives, which runs private schools for at-risk youths and could be seen as a competitor of applicant Aspiranet. Hamilton said she recused herself but fully supports having more opportunities for teens with troubles.

“That’s been my life, working with at-risk kids, and I have actually seen them grow and turn into wonderful adults,” said Hamilton, who retired after years of teaching young parents in alternative education programs.

Turlock Unified will provide some oversight, but Aspiranet will run Fusion Charter operations and manage its finances, getting funding directly from the state. It will answer to the Aspiranet board, with a five-person local advisory board to include parent and community members.

The school will open Sept. 8 with about 110 kids in grades seven through high school, with room to grow to 250, according to its application.

Though as a public charter it is open to all, the application says, “Our primary focus will be students with negative attitudes about the traditional educational system.” Those would include expelled students, wards of the court, pregnant or parenting teens, and habitually truant or insubordinate kids.

The school will initially be housed in five classrooms at Free Will Baptist Church on Geer Road. Pastor Don Ellerd said the church board approved the move June 29. The classroom wing, behind the main church building, has restrooms but no cafeteria, he said.

Aspiranet started its nonpublic Valley Oaks school in the same building, Ellerd said.

Courses will be online with a teacher-coach providing added instruction as needed. Students will come for a three-hour block, in the morning or afternoon, four days a week, Hanna said.

Fridays will be what she called inquiry-based learning day, which could be experiments, research for a paper, or other projects students and teachers pick. The goal is to work in small groups and foster collaborative skills as well as academics, the principal said.

Counseling, family help, social services and career studies also will address the extra needs of the target teens. “We’re throwing it all in there,” she said. The smaller setting with its more intense focus was designed for kids who have chaotic lives or emotional issues.

“We all recognize kids are a lot more difficult now. We are missing a lot of kids we need to focus on,” she said.

Students who do well in the program and want to can head back to regular schools offering competitive team sports, orchestras and lots of electives, Hanna said.

“Their goal is to take the kids, give them an intensive small group program, and then they can return,” Da Marto said.

“I’m trying to find any pathway I can to help kids make it. A lot of these kids don’t feel they have any chance, and we’re trying to give them back that hope,” he said.