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In Horizon Charter Schools’ case, parents provide ultimate oversight

Western Placer says it had no power to keep program open
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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CHARTER SCHOOLS SERIES

The midyear closure of a popular Horizon Charter Schools program in Placer County, displaced hundreds of students, angered parents and sparked questions about what led to the sudden problems with one of the longest standing charters in California.

The Journal and its Gold Country Media partners launched an effort to shed light on the state of Horizon and charter schools in general.

Part 1: How Horizon’s $800,000 investment, other facilities went awry

Part 2: A snapshot of Horizon’s finances; a closer look at its CEO

Part 3: Horizon issue reveals oversight is a delicate balancing act

Part 4: A charter success story

Part 5: Comparing charter schools to traditional public schools

 

 

WHAT ABOUT THE TEACHERS?

Just as parents sought to hold Horizon Charter Schools accountable for issues surrounding the closure of its Accelerated Learning Academy, so too did a group of teachers who had been laid off from the program.

At Horizon’s Jan. 17 governing board meeting, Todd Pfeffer read a statement on behalf of five of the 14 teachers terminated in the wake of the ALA closure, saying Horizon never gave any indication when they signed on for the school year that the program’s long-term status was in question.

Some of the teachers went on to teach the same curriculum to a group of former ALA students in Lincoln as part of the new Placer Academy for Accelerated Learning, while others, including Pfeffer, are working on a new K-8 private school in Roseville called Hawthorne Academy of Arts and Sciences, set to open this fall.

Five teachers requested compensation from Horizon for loss of future wages, but had not received a response as of their Jan. 31 deadline listed in Pfeffer’s statement.

“Clearly, we did not lose our jobs as a result of a struggling economy, reduced state funding, or an unforeseeable drop in enrollment due to natural attrition,” Pfeffer said in his statement.

Pfeffer declined to comment further for this story.

Lizette Swiven had been a teacher at Horizon’s now-shuttered site for Rocklin Academy of Math, Science and Engineering where ALA students also took classes.  At the January meeting, she called for people to stop belittling and yelling at the administration.

“This destructive behavior must stop,” said Swiven, who has a Horizon high school student and is now a Horizon “virtual academy teacher.” “It is not good for you, your own children, and for the students and staff at Horizon Charter Schools. Let us focus our energy on making positive changes.”

 

 

Scott Leaman says the art of charter schools oversight is a delicate balancing act – ensuring the school is in compliance while also allowing the flexibility that defines the nontraditional educational movement.

As Western Placer Unified School District superintendent, it is an issue he has had to navigate recently when concerns cropped up with Horizon Charter Schools, for which Western Placer is the authorizing agency.

In October 2012, Horizon closed its Rocklin site where 391 students between its Accelerated Learning Academy and a separate high-school program had been meeting for classes – citing imminent traffic and safety concerns exacerbated by attendance surpassing permitted levels.

Parents had been told the programs were moving to a “virtual learning” independent study model, and as enrollment declined, Horizon shuttered the ALA program entirely in December, which meant also uprooting the K-2 students that had met at a Lincoln site.

Horizon lost more than 300 students from the closure.

Throughout the process, parents contacted Leaman to try to get some answers.

Today’s story is the third in a series covering charter schools that runs through Tuesday, and it will address the topic of charter school oversight. Monday’s article covered how Horizon’s $800,000 facility investment went wrong and Tuesday’s looked at Horizon’s financial picture.

Horizon’s charters are up for reauthorization by Western Placer this spring.

Leaman said he could empathize with ALA parents’ concerns, but “Do I have the power, ability or resources to say we’re going to keep that situation that people are describing as unsafe open? No, that’s probably not what I would do.”

However, he did take issue with Horizon closing it during a school year, even if it had been forced because of safety, and he has discussed with Horizon’s administration that those types of “global changes” need to take place during the summer.

“That was not something that is best practice, whatsoever,” Leaman said. “When families are committed to a program – and this is where the charter works a little different than traditional (schools) would because many of the families have kind of their blood, sweat and tears dedicated to the school program – for that to close down midyear, it does cause a family (duress).”

 

‘A mild pulling’ of extremes

Leaman tried to explain to parents that Horizon is essentially its own school district and that Western Placer’s oversight is minimal to allow flexibility. Traditional schools have stricter guidelines that could help them avoid some of the potential risks charter schools may face.

“(There is) a mild pulling at each other trying to balance those two extremes (of oversight and flexibility). That’s what the charter movement is all about. It really is,” he said. “They are meant to push the envelope programmatically, but sometimes to do that, there are reasons why many of the policies are in place in traditional schools, and that’s where some of the challenges I think come in with the charter movement.”

Horizon has its own governing board and superintendent, CEO Craig Heimbichner, and it is largely up to them to oversee their own operations, Leaman said.

“I have a very different relationship with a (traditional) school in our district than I do with Horizon,” he said. “We are not directly involved in the management of (Horizon’s) program, personnel or finances, and in the traditional programs, we are involved in all of those.”

Western Placer is responsible for overseeing Horizon’s compliance financially, with its charter, educational standards and any applicable laws, Leaman said. The district does review Horizon’s annual independent audit reports, Leaman said.

As authorizing agency, it receives 1 percent of Horizon’s revenue generated by enrollment, the minimum required by law, he said.

 “We’re not involved in the overall governance of the school. Typically we’re not involved in the financial decisions or implementation,” he said. “We’re not involved in the daily decision making around programs or policies.”

California is a “local control” state, and the California Department of Education “doesn’t know much” about Horizon’s current state of affairs, said Tina Jung, department spokesperson.

“We don’t hear about it until way down the line,” if there is a problem, Jung said.

If the department becomes aware of a problematic school, then it will help the district come into compliance with state and federal laws, but daily operations “such as the opening and closing of a site, taking attendance,” are handled at the local level, she said.

 

‘Black-eye on Western Placer’

Former ALA parent Brandy Waters scoffs at the idea there was any oversight of Horizon.

“This is more of a black-eye on Western Placer than it is more on the charter schools process,” Waters said when asked about whether less stringent oversight poses a risk to charter schools not experienced by traditional ones.

Waters is a developmental board member for Placer Academy for Accelerated Learning, formerly called Harvest Ridge Lincoln Core, which uses ALA’s curriculum and some of its ex-teachers for K-6 classes in Lincoln.

The new program is sub-chartered under Harvest Ridge Charter School, authorized by Newcastle Elementary School District, and it has given Waters two different perspectives on how districts oversee their charter schools.

“I don’t think … Western Placer Unified School District did the required accountability processes. It seems to me that Horizon was running amuck amongst themselves,” she said. “And I know for a fact of having worked under Newcastle that they have a very hands-on approach. They want to make sure that whatever their hands are attached to is quality.”

Leaman said the ALA dustup sparked him to attend Horizon’s board meetings so he could listen to parents and provide advice to administrators where it is needed, but whether they take it “is really up to the local Horizon board to make those decisions.”

 

Parents focused on accountability

Amid the closure crisis, some ALA parents complained of being denied communications with Horizon’s governing board and later Heimbichner as well.

Ultimately a group emerged determined to hold Horizon’s administration accountable for what it deemed ethical violations and mismanagement of public funds. Called the Parent Focus Group, it read a seven-page letter to Horizon’s governing board at its December meeting.

It loudly combated the idea that the ALA program had to close midyear because of a safety crisis. It decried the notion that the program lost support among parents, saying Heimbichner’s poor communication as well as lack of a transitional plan led to “chaos.”

They demanded answers, and requested to be added to the board’s meeting agenda in January to outline their grievances. Their request was granted, and Horizon’s detractors and supporters filled a small conference room at its headquarters in Lincoln.

Leaman said he had been there but left so his seat could be taken by a parent. The small room had met capacity and was being strictly regulated due to the amount of people desiring to participate in public comment.

Jay Carey took the lead as spokesman for the Parent Focus Group. He first addressed Andrea Rynberk, one of five Horizon parents elected by parents and staff to the board.

“The sad thing is that you as parent representatives have let us down. When I contacted you, Andrea, you refused to talk to me … and said that the board speaks with one voice and that you could not speak to me directly,” Carey said. “If you are representatives of the parents, why do you refuse to have a phone conversation with us or refuse to speak to us face-to-face.

“How are you truly our representatives?”

Board members did not respond during public comment but addressed parents’ concerns later in the meeting – an hour-long discussion driven by Rynberk’s questioning of Heimbichner on a number of the issues.

That followed Heimbichner’s statement attempting to answer “any lingering questions,” after “some families … have expressed an interest in a review of these events and a more complete explanation.”

Some changes to their review processes have already been made, Horizon officials said, and any issues revealed by the investigation being conducted by an outside agency will be addressed.

“Several of the parents and teachers that spoke (at the January meeting), one of their clearly stated goals was that they want us to be really taking account of how things happened,” said Carmen Oates, Horizon board member. “It’s just really important to me this investigation process is happening, because it’s going to allow us to really fulfill that request.

“But something that’s important to me as a parent representative is to know how, then, we are going to be able to communicate some of those changes we are making, some of the steps we are taking, to help them know that we are taking all of this very seriously and that we are operating with integrity.”

 

Jon Schultz can be reached at jons@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews