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Charter school history celebrated
August 22, 2012, 05:00 AM By Heather Murtagh Daily Journal Staff

Heather Murtagh/Daily Journal Second grader Reid, left, writes down the name of on of his new classmates while playing a bingo get to know you game during the first day of school at the San Carlos Charter Learning Center Tuesday.

"Alec, are you a vegetarian?” Aarya asked his new classmate yesterday, the first day of second grade at the San Carlos Charter Learning Center.

Alec quickly replied, "No.”

At the neighboring table, a little boy asks Mia if she likes to sing. As news that Mia likes to sing travels, others approach the little blonde girl in hopes of filling their bingo square. However, it also appears that Mia is the only student who doesn’t live in San Carlos — a valuable square on the get-to-know-you bingo game the class was playing Monday morning. Each child’s name can only be used once. Figuring out which box is the right one required many students to use an eraser.

While the class was getting acquainted with each other, people had gathered near the campus library to celebrate the 20th anniversary of California Charter Schools Act. The original law, passed in 1992, limited the number of charter schools in the state to 100. The San Carlos Elementary School District was the first in California to open a charter school. The San Carlos Charter Learning Center was granted the first charter in 1993 and opened its doors in 1994 to 85 students.

SCLC Director Chris Mahoney explained the idea was to create labs of innovation. Twenty years later, the school is one that focuses on group activities, experiential learning and using assignments with ties outside the confines of the classroom.

"We go where the learning takes us,” Mahoney said of the school to a group that had gathered for a morning press conference to mark the anniversary.

Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, described the anniversary as a time to look back and also forward. When the law was adopted, California was only the second in the country to allow such schools. The idea, he said, was to allow for creativity outside of the confines on the regular school day. Wallace described the charter movement as growing and a possible solution to budget challenges.

Don Shalvey, deputy director of education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was the superintendent when the district decided to open the charter school. It wasn’t without controversy but ultimately the community decided to create a school to better its educational offerings.

"It’s a gift the community gave itself,” he said, adding that the community understood local education "didn’t have to be sick to get better.”

In San Carlos, six out of the seven schools within the district are charter schools, only Central Middle remains traditional. Most people wouldn’t realize this, however.

There are two types of charter schools, independent and dependent. The Learning Center works independently, which means the district gives the school the money in a lump sum and the school takes over from there. It works out how the money is used as well as the educational plan from that point. Generally speaking, independent schools run like traditional public schools just with a few relaxed rules.

In San Carlos, the five other charter schools are dependent schools. The switch was made in the ’90s because there is more flexibility in the state regulations and a little bit more funding available than with regular schools. Within these schools, however, things are run like a traditional school and the teachers are unionized.

Those on hand Tuesday pointed to those who first embraced the law as allowing new ideas to flourish. One drawback to the original law was the cap. In 1997, that cap was lifted through legislation authored by then assemblyman Ted Lempert, executive director for Children Now.

"Children are our most important asset, and it is our collective responsibility to ensure they have great schools they can attend,” said Lempert.

Lifting the cap has allowed many more schools to open. Among those are Silicon Valley-based high schools run by Summit Public Schools. Summit, the first of the schools, opened in Redwood City in 2003. Since then, it’s grown from one campus to a collection of campuses that is seeking to grow.

Diane Tavenner, CEO of Summit Public Schools, said the work of those before has allowed the schools she works with to welcome innovation to constantly improve upon the program offered.

Heather Murtagh can be reached by email: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.

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