SOUL ‘holistic’ charter school eyes Encinitas opening

For the first time in the San Dieguito Union High School District’s history, it has received a petition to authorize a charter school. The School of Universal Learning (SOUL) Charter School aims to open a seventh through 12th grade campus in Encinitas in 2017.

At the Sept. 1 board meeting, Interim Superintendent Eric Dill said the district now begins the complex process of evaluating the petition — all of the district’s assistant superintendents will look at different elements of the school, such as curriculum, how students progress, assessments, accreditation and the business plan.

“This isn’t about checklists,” Dill said. “The real measure we’re looking at is qualitative and evaluating the likelihood that the school can deliver a quality educational program.”

The school district has 30 days from the date of submission to conduct a public hearing and 60 days to review and act on the petition. The board will hold a public hearing on the petition on Sept. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at San Dieguito High School Academy and plans to take action at a meeting on Oct. 13, whether it is an approval, denial or conditional approval.

If authorized by SDUHSD, SOUL will take students on a first-come, first-served basis and meet the needs of all learners.

The charter school, or a public school of choice, would have oversight from its authorizers, which includes the local school district SDUHSD, the San Diego County Office of Education and California State Board of Education. Charter schools, like public schools, are funded under the Local Control Funding Formula which allocates state and local tax dollars to education agencies based on the number of pupils in each grade level. According to the California Charter School Association, charter schools receive less per pupil funding even though the funding follows each student.

Co-founders Michael Grimes and Melissa Bruyneel have been working on elements of SOUL for the last six years.

“Even if they tell us ‘no,’ we’re going to find a way to make it ‘yes,’” Bruyneel said. “We’ve always been transparent about the fact that we’re going all the way. This school is our mission, our life’s work and we’re going to take it all the way. It’s in the district’s best interest to approve us so they can have oversight.”

Grimes received his bachelor’s degree in education from SUNY Cortland and his master’s degree in educational administration from SUNY Albany. He spent 12 years teaching in New York, New Orleans, Arizona and San Diego. He moved to New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina and helped create the philosophy and methodology for three New Orleans charter schools. He has spent the past eight years as a lead teacher and administrator at three San Diego charter schools.

At the Sept. 1 meeting, Grimes told the story of his little brother who, at 17, was one of the smartest kids in school, great at sports, popular and a great artist — but internally he was battling a war and had no vision for the future.

“I was 24 years old when my little brother hung himself from a tree in our backyard,” Grimes said. “That day entirely changed the trajectory of my life. It not only engulfed me in my spiritual journey, but showed me the need we have to transform our educational system.”

He said while his brother was strong mentally, socially and physically, he lacked an understanding of the emotional and personal aspects of his being. He said his suicide showed the importance of an education that teaches to all parts of a student’s being, including social skills and personal development, creating a connection to their passions and purpose so they are able to thrive holistically.

“This is what SOUL does,” Grimes said.

Bruyneel received her bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and her master’s degree in English education from Columbia University. She has worked with students as an educator in a variety of settings but moved to San Diego to fulfill her dream of opening a charter school. She has worked at San Diego charter schools and is currently a regional college readiness counselor.

“Let’s strip away the politics that so heavily undergird our nation’s education system, let’s let go of the financial gains or losses that got assigned to our children and let’s remove personal agendas,” Bruyneel said. “Let’s return education to where it should be, to the children creating this world. Our children deserve to not only have the best education available to them, but to live their very best lives.”

Grimes said SOUL’s academic program is a combination of project-based and experiential learning that stresses “conscious culture,” personalized learning, commitment to the family, developing entrepreneurs and honoring teachers by paying them a higher than average salaries.

“Integra” serves as the foundation of the school — Latin for whole, students attend Integra three times a day to set their intentions and meditate, a midday focus on self development and an end-of-the-day reflection session.

For their campus, Grimes said they are looking at the Pacific View Property, the former school property on Third Street which was sold to the city of Encinitas by the Encinitas School District in 2014. As part of their plan, SOUL plans for the site to serve as a community center during after-school hours and weekends.

SOUL will max out at 600 students or 5 percent of San Dieguito’s total population. Within the district, Grimes said they have also found that more than 200 students are enrolled in online schools, so they are positioning the school to be a new option for students who have switched to online schools.

David Steel, a member of the board of directors of SOUL, said he is very aware of the community’s need for educational alternatives. His children attended Torrey Pines High School and he said it wasn’t the greatest experience for them — they didn’t fit in and ended up on a dangerous path with substance abuse. He said SOUL represents a solution to what families like his have been asking for.

“Traditional schools are great for many of the students in the district. They are not great for all of the students in the district,” Steel said. “There is definitely a need for an alternative option.”

Bruyneel said there is nothing wrong with SDUHSD schools — they are great schools.

“Some people may say there isn’t a need for a charter school here. There is a real need here. After years of outreach, this community chose us,” Bruyneel said. “They asked us to open here and serve their children.”

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