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Mayacamas school plan divides charter school supporters, Napa district educators in hearing

Mayacamas Charter Middle School site

Jolene Yee (left) and Lauren Daley, members of a nonprofit promoting the planned Mayacamas Charter Middle School, visited the academy's hoped-for quarters inside the former St. John the Baptist Catholic School, which closed in 2020. A petition filed with the Napa Valley Unified School District seeks to approve Mayacamas' operation for at least five years, starting in August 2022.

The first public debate over a charter middle school proposed for downtown Napa produced passion both for and against the project, and little apparent middle ground.

At a hearing last week held by the Napa school district’s board of education, backers of the Mayacamas Charter Middle School — intended to open in August 2022 as an alternative to larger traditional campuses — competed for district leaders’ ears with opponents who warned the academy would drain a public school system already grappling with falling enrollment and shrinking state funding.

Over about two hours, the Napa Valley Unified School District’s board heard dueling claims from more than 40 speakers that the charter school, which would educate more than 300 sixth- to eighth-graders inside the former St. John the Baptist Catholic School at 983 Napa St., would offer a more nurturing, small-school experience for young teens — or siphon off money and resources urgently needed by the local middle school community as a whole.

A nonprofit foundation is seeking a five-year agreement with NVUSD to support Mayacamas through June 2027. Enrollment at the middle school is expected to begin at about 180 students next year, gradually increasing to 336.

Mayacamas allies including Lauren Daley, a co-organizer of the project, warned that brushing off alternatives to conventional public schools would drive more local families into private schools, and that the Napa district needs to extend a hand to parents who have preferred current and former charters like the soon-to-close River Middle School for offering a more nurturing and supportive environment than what larger campuses could offer.

“Since we started this endeavor, we’ve received many emails from parents and grandparents expressing relief at the notion of this school and wanting to know how to register,” Daley told the board by videoconference. “While the current middle school options are likely great for a large number of students, there are clearly families who need the Mayacamas option. Many have said this is their last hope for remaining in public school in Napa.”

However, several educators urged NVUSD to reject the Mayacamas plan, warning that the siphoning-off of students — and the resulting loss of per-student educational funding by the state — would lead to even more teacher layoffs on top of the staff cuts the district has made during six years of shrinking student counts.

“Losing (336) students means we will lay off 12 to 14 middle school teachers; that’s about 9% of our middle school teaching staff,” predicted Jennifer Kohl, principal of Silverado Middle School. “This is a significant impact any way you look at it; it will negatively impact our academic and our elective programs, any way you look at it.”

Organizers hope to open a new charter middle school in Napa: Mayacamas Charter Middle School. It could occupy the former St. John the Baptist Catholic School property in downtown Napa.

The campaign to approve the Mayacamas school continues a battle over school choice that intensified when NVUSD trustees voted in April to close two middle schools in June 2022 – Harvest, which provides English-Spanish dual-language instruction, and River, which was a charter until 2019 and which provides a smaller-classroom teaching model based on closer teacher-pupil interaction. (River’s campus on Salvador Avenue will house the new dual-language Unidos Middle School starting next fall, after Harvest closes.)

After the approval of the middle-school shutdowns, charter school supporters announced plans for Mayacamas, forming the nonprofit Napa Foundation for Options in Education to push for the school’s creation — despite organizers admitting that gaining NVUSD’s approval would be a longshot so soon after the district’s belt-tightening.

“It’s definitely an uphill battle to get this approved and to get the school district to change their minds,” Daley, who moved her daughter from River to a private middle school after the closure vote, told the Napa Valley Register shortly before the foundation filed its petition Sept. 15 to launch Mayacamas. California law gave NVUSD 60 days to schedule a public hearing on the charter school proposal, a forum that took place on Thursday via Zoom.

Such enthusiasm for a new charter academy, however, failed to sway district teachers and others who argued that Mayacamas would merely duplicate offerings at Silverado, Redwood or American Canyon, NVUSD’s conventional grade 6-8 campuses.

“Our two middle schools should receive all the attention and resources, given the percentage of English learners and socioeconomically disadvantaged students that we serve,” said Daralyn Christensen of Silverado Middle School’s parent-faculty club. “We would welcome all of these students at Silverado and Redwood. We feel very responsible for making sure our students have every opportunity to learn, based on their needs.”

During Thursday's forum, a mother of River students attacked such opposition as a sign of continued resistance to schools outside the district’s direct control.

“This seems to be a clear case of NVUSD telling the community what they need, rather than listening to what they want,” said Maureen Theunissen, who opposed the district’s decision this spring to close River. “… Not listening to the kids and their parents is exactly why many charter schools start. When a district cannot or will not meet the needs of the community, the community will organize and create a charter school.”

NVUSD has scheduled the online publication of its recommendation on the Mayacamas school plan for Nov. 24, and the school board is set to vote on the petition Dec. 9, within the 90-day period California law gives school districts to either approve or reject a charter school application.

A charter school petition in California must include 15 elements, including a description of its education program, a governance structure, yardstick for student outcomes, qualifications for staff, and a plan for achieving a racial and ethnic balance reflecting the school district’s population. Enrollment is voluntary, and a charter school may select pupils by lottery if the demand for seats outstrips supply.

Currently, NVUSD's only charter school is Stone Bridge, a K-8 academy that this fall moved from Carneros to the former Mt. George Elementary, one of two district grade school campuses to be closed in 2020 due to low enrollment. Stone Bridge teaches a Waldorf-based, low-technology curriculum that focuses largely on experience-based learning.

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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