Plan for at-risk kids fails, but gets new chance

The Associated Press
Friday October 13, 2000

SACRAMENTO — A residential charter school that would use organic gardening to try to turn troubled teens around failed to win approval from the state Education Board Thursday, but will get another chance. 

Several board members were absent and backers of the proposed Blue Mountain Wilderness Program at Camp Connell in Calaveras County were told to return for another vote at the November board meeting. 

One board member, Robert Abernethy of Manhattan Beach, said he believes such teens should be dumped on the streets. But he said he was so impressed with the proposal that he donated $1,000 to help the effort. 

The Blue Mountain proposal comes as the state Board of Education grapples with approving the first state-chartered schools. 

The more than 300 charter schools approved since 1993 have all been chartered by local school districts or county offices of education.  

A 1999 law allows proponents turned down by local boards to ask the state board to charter them. 

The board is working on a policy on how to evaluate such proposals and – more critically – how to monitor them after approval. Adoption of such a policy is several months away, but the board is voting on appeals in the meantime. 

A vote scheduled Thursday on another charter proposal, the Ridgecrest Charter School in the northeast Kern County desert, was also postponed until November. State officials and proponents are still working on changes, particularly in special education, that the board requested last month. 

Blue Mountain backers want to combine a “serene, summer camp-style residential program” for at-risk teens or those in trouble with courts with a charter school that would emphasize environmental studies. 

The charter school would include regular academic subjects, environmental education and life skill and vocational training. 

Students would study sustainable living by working on an organic farm, building a home made of straw bales and using alternative energy sources, the plan says. 

“Through regular garden work, students will learn about the organic certification process, soil restoration, plant selection, biological pest control and harvesting,” the plan says. The crops would be eaten by the teens, sold at local farmers’ markets and donated to charities. 

The organizers are applying next week for a group home license with the state Department of Social Services to initially house six teens. 

The proposal was rejected last March by the Alameda County Board of Education, which said the school was too far away for it to supervise. 

Blue Mountain founder Jake Wallace said he went to Alameda County, which has hundreds of troubled teens who are regularly sent to out-of-county programs, after he was turned down three times by the Calaveras County Board of Education. 

Calaveras County Superintendent John Brophy told the state board that his board was not opposed to Blue Mountain’s concept, but worries about the complications of linking a group home, funded with state welfare funds, with a charter school, funded with school funds. 

“My board was very nervous about the financial implications,” Brophy said. 

The state board members, while they applauded the idea, were also nervous about the complex proposal. 

“We could easily have a mess on our hands in terms of logistics,” said member Reed Hastings of Santa Cruz, who is a strong charter school backer.  

“It feels overambitious to me.” 

Hastings and state school Superintendent Delaine Eastin offered to help Wallace refine his proposal or find a more hospitable local board. 

“I hope you succeed,” Eastin said. 

Abernethy argued for giving Blue Mountain a state charter, with an argument that shocked the audience in the board’s meeting room. 

“I believe we’re wasting time on the bottom 1 to 2 percent who are behind problems and we really should put them out on the street,” he said. 

But, Abernethy added, “It makes my heart warm to see someone who wants to tackle them.” 

“I’ll bet they were already dumped on the street,” commented board member Marion Joseph. 

“I’d rather put the parents of some kids on the street,” added Eastin. 

After the vote, Abernethy held up a $1,000 check for the backers. 

Wallace said afterward that he would evaluate the proposal and may make changes before the November meeting. 

On the Net: 

Read about charter schools at http://www.cde.ca.gov/charter 

Read about Blue Mountain at http://www.blue-mountain.org