Students, parents and teachers from Phillips Charter School filled the room at a recent school board meeting in an attempt to save Phillips from losing its charter.
School district administrators have said that a charter renewal for the Napa elementary school cannot be granted unless the school’s leaders come up with a viable plan to improve student test scores.
Amidst its struggles, Phillips is also undergoing a transition in leadership. The school’s current principal, Theressa Manzanedo, is being replaced by former Phillips principal Matt Manning.
Manning officially starts the job in July, but has already begun working with the school’s charter renewal committee.
The Napa Valley Unified School District has never revoked a charter, but the district has denied initial petitions to start a charter, said Maren Rocca-Hunt, director of elementary education.
Phillips submitted a draft in March proposing to adopt a curriculum based on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), but administrators say the timeline to implement the new program would take too long, and that Phillips needs to have a stronger focus on its English-learning students.
The school’s proposal includes taking three years to design and develop STEM instruction, and students have already fallen behind academically, Rocca-Hunt said.
“Phillips Charter School has hardworking teachers and staff. However, their instructional design needs a more concentrated focus on early literacy,” Superintendent Patrick Sweeney said.
At the May 2 board meeting, every seat in the room was filled for the school’s public hearing. With no available chairs, the youngest students in the crowd sat cross-legged on the floor.
Several of the audience members approached the podium to share their personal stories and experiences with Phillips. All spoke highly of the programs offered there and the dedication of its teachers and staff.
One of the school’s current sixth-graders ended his comments with a plea to the board of trustees: “Please keep our school the way it is.”
Charter schools are public schools that have been authorized by the district’s Board of Trustees to provide a unique curriculum described in a charter agreement. All charter schools have their own governing body but remain ultimately accountable to the district’s board.
Under state law, charter school agreements are up for renewal every five years, and schools must meet several areas of criteria in order to get approved.
Each of the trustees expressed appreciation for the comments and the outpouring of support for Phillips, but all of the trustees shared concerns that the school is falling short of expectations.
“What it comes to is looking at the facts,” trustee Robb Felder said.
One of the main concerns is that students aren’t improving academically. The test scores at Phillips Charter School have leveled off, and the school ranks poorly compared to schools with similar demographics.
Eighty-five percent of Phillips’ students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and another 43 percent are English learners, according to the California Department of Education. Based on the results of last year’s standardized tests, Phillips earned an Academic Performance Index score of 744. Schools with similar demographics across the state earned a median API score of 800.
“It’s not a question of dedication or passion or working harder,” Felder said. “It’s about working differently.”
Considering the demographics, trustee Thomas Kensok suggested that Phillips consider a bilingual education program — similar to the Napa Valley Language Academy, whose charter was renewed during the same board meeting as Phillips’ public hearing.
Phillips and NVLA are two of the four charter schools in the Napa Valley Unified School District. The other two are Shearer Charter School and Stone Bridge School.
The board of trustees is expected to make a final decision on Phillips’ charter renewal on May 30.
Sweeney said that no matter what the board decides, the district will work to help the struggling school.
“We will continue to work closely with the teachers and staff,” Sweeney said. “Whether it is a charter or not, they are part of the district's team and student success is our goal. All students need to be ready for college and careers in the 21st century.”