At Conscious Meal Time, otherwise known as lunch, students at the School of Universal Learning (SOUL) gather in a circle to socialize and eat quietly, all together as a group. No cliques, no bullying, no isolation of students.
Afterwards, the children have time before afternoon classes to play in a large central game room, over watchful eyes of adults to ensure the sense of inclusiveness carries over.
In its spacious location at the Solana Beach Boys & Girls Club, SOUL opened in September for students in seventh and ninth grades.
“The Boys & Girls Club is a great facility and location,” said co-founder Michael Grimes. “They’ve been great to work with.”
“We don’t feel facility needs is a concern any more,” he said, speaking of their biggest obstacle after being authorized in January by the San Diego County Board of Education.
That’s not to say SOUL won’t be applying for space from the San Dieguito Union High School District for next year, as is its right under Proposition 39.
Depending upon enrollment and rent costs, the new charter school has the option to take offered space from SDUHSD, stay at the Boys & Girls Club, or find a new location.
Ironically, at its present location, SOUL would be the only San Dieguito school with a pool on-site. Grimes said they hope to find a time for weekly day use of the pool for physical education.
Even though SDUHSD voted not to authorize SOUL, which forced the charter school to appeal to the county for authorization, SOUL’s charter application is based within the boundaries of San Dieguito. That makes San Dieguito responsible for providing facility space (at fair market value), if SOUL can prove it has at least 80 students residing within SDUHSD boundaries who are committed to attending SOUL, according to co-founder and Grimes partner Marisa Bruyneel Fogelman.
Fogelman said they have more than enough students for that, with more than 50 so far on the waitlist who have signed the Intent to Enroll form. Plus, she said the school has students transferring in every week.
Enrollment currently stands at 32 in seventh grade and 15 in ninth grade. Students reside primarily within the SDUHSD boundaries, particularly Encinitas, but also come from Carlsbad, Poway, La Jolla and other surrounding communities.
An exciting development, Fogelman said, is that the county allowed the school to open an eighth grade class this year for the second quarter, which began Nov. 6. Seven students in eighth grade are enrolled so far.
All academic lessons follow state standards and “a-g” requirements, and assessment testing occurs three times a year. The founders are confident they can show growth over time.
In addition to academic assessments, SOUL applies holistic assessments, as part of its philosophy is to inspire emotional confidence, internal stability, and personal and collective responsibility.
SOUL operates on a quarterly basis, with four quarters each school year. Each quarter ends with an Exhibition Night when students present their work from the preceding quarter to the school, family and public. The first quarter ended Nov. 1, with an Exhibition Night held Nov. 2.
“It’s everything they’ve been working on for the past nine weeks,” Fogelman said.
The school covers state standards through rigorous project-based learning. Hands-on learning, the founders say, enhances deeper-level thinking skills. The goal is to prepare students for college and the workforce.
After-school tutoring is offered as well.
Electives include Entrepreneurship (which is designed to give students the opportunity to develop an entrepreneurial mindset), art, martial arts, and Odyssey of the Mind (an international creative problem-solving competition).
Every other Wed. the girls and boys are separated for lessons that help them develop their own sense of purpose and also work to break down gender role stereotypes.
Fogelman called it creating sacred space for the girls to foster a sense of sisterhood, and Grimes said discussions with the boys often center around how to openly talk about emotions.
The school’s five teachers, all fully credentialed educators, are referred to as guides, “because rather than teaching our students information, we see their role as guiding students toward discovering more of who they are,” Fogelman said.
A key part of preparation for adult life is instilling a sense of personal satisfaction and respect for oneself and others. The school’s Integra program seeks to meet those objectives.
Each day includes 90 minutes of Integra – 20 minutes at the start and end of the day, and a 50-minute class mid-day. Integra is Latin for entire/complete/whole, and the classes are designed to address the needs of the whole being.
Integra focuses on five areas, one each day of the week: mental power, emotional intelligence, social skills, physical well-being and personal development.
In a ninth-grade Integra class on the day focused on physical well-being, teacher/guide Justin Moodie, a Torrey Pines High School graduate and now a credentialed teacher, asked his students what they can do to stay happy, as it relates to physical well-being.
Answers were varied, and there was respect for the different paths individuals take to happiness.
One student said she was happy when she makes a good decision, like choosing to eat carrots instead of chips.
“Let my emotions out; don’t keep them in,” said another.
“Find ways to be proud of yourself.”
Grimes and Fogelman are pleased with the execution and implementation of their curriculum. “We’ve essentially put theory into practice,” Fogelman said.
The belief that charter schools pre-select their students for success is a myth, Fogelman said, noting that SOUL students are a diverse group.
Student enrollment includes 25 percent special education students, and 25 percent of students qualify for free and/or reduced lunch (a gauge of poverty).
“All the kids are here because they’ve chosen an alternative school,” Fogelman said.
Reasons vary. It’s often because they do not feel safe or respected at their previous school, or that they’re not thriving emotionally or academically. Emotional issues and bullying can interfere with learning in profound and lasting ways.
Although she said the kids say that everyone at SOUL is kind and accepting, there are disciplinary issues.
“Like any other school, we do have problems and conflicts,” Fogelman said. “We bring kids into the office whenever this happens, and we have the kids talk about how to work through their dynamics.”
SOUL uses restorative justice techniques which are not punitive, and teachers also serve as counselors and work with students one-on-one. So far this has been a successful strategy, she said.
A seventh-grade student from Leucadia described the school as friendly and fun. “There’s always a good vibe,” he said. “It makes me want to come back each day.”
He said he enjoys the projects and learning from others in the group. In history, for example, he said they are creating their own country, with laws, a government and system of justice.
“This is a great school, with dedicated teachers, interesting and meaningful projects, and at the core their Integra program,” said parent Lili Sanders. “The directors and staff are amazing, and what’s more my son is really heard as a student and as an individual.”
Sanders, who lives in the north county coastal San Dieguito district, has a seventh-grader at SOUL who was previously home-schooled.
“What I really love about this school is that they celebrate differences,” said parent Julie Anderson. “We all have talents. We all have something different to give.”
Speaking of the founders, she said, “Not only is it everything [they] presented, but it’s more. It’s just night and day. I almost can’t put it into words. We all have children who’ve had a struggle or just weren’t being accepted for whatever reason. SOUL is a very special school.”
Tiffany Rose, president of SOUL’s Parent Organization, said her son moved to SOUL from Torrey Pines High School.
“The traditional school system did not work for my son,” she said. “He could not thrive. The teachers have so many students, they tend to live more in a structured box without seeing the beauty of the kids who live outside the lines.”
Since her son has been at SOUL, she’s seen growth, more responsibility, leadership opportunities, great friendships, pride in his work, and self-confidence.
“I see him thriving,” she said. “It gives him a glimpse of what’s possible for him in the future. He feels seen and heard.”
She said the extended family makes him feel encouraged, supported and loved – “even if it’s tough love.”
“With small class sizes and a small community, nothing falls through the cracks,” she said.
Rose said there is an expectation of greatness and a celebration of what the students achieve.
“SOUL lives outside the box, giving these students a vision, an attitude, that they may not ever see inside the current traditional school system,” she said. “SOUL is magical.”
A charter school is a public school that operates independently. There is no cost to families to attend. Charters are paid by the state per student based on Average Daily Attendance, just as other public schools are funded.
California state standards are applied, and academic measures and progress reports are part of a charter school’s renewal process.
Critics say it’s unfair for charter schools to open and take away money from traditional public schools.
Proponents, however, say more public school options are needed for kids who don’t thrive in the traditional comprehensive high school, no matter how well it scores on national rankings.
Because the county only authorized SOUL for two years, the founders must apply by January 2019 for reauthorization.
“We will go before the county around this time next year to begin the renewal process,” Grimes said. “We have been meeting with the county and feel good about this process.”
Said Rick Shea, president of the San Diego County Board of Education, “As the authorizer for SOUL, it is our responsibility to both support and monitor the school.”
Shea has visited the school a few times since its September opening and said, “I have observed passionate and committed parents who find the school to be beneficial for their students. At my most recent visit I interacted directly and in-depth with parents, school staff, and with students who explained their projects to me in detail.”
He said the county office of education is “always looking for innovative approaches to education that benefit children and comply with the law.”
The biggest challenge now for SOUL, a non-profit, is fundraising, Grimes said, adding that they are actively seeking grants.
SOUL founders had hoped to open this year with 100 students in seventh and ninth grades but fell short primarily due to the uncertainty of a location until just a few months before the start of school.
Permission to open an eighth-grade class this quarter is good news for the school.
“Eighth-grade enrollment … might positively impact low enrollment which remains a concern for both SOUL and the county board,” Shea said.
Next year the school will add 10th grade. “Doubling of the grades next year will help,” Grimes said.
Central to SOUL’s guiding principles is the belief that traditional schools often overlook the full range of what today’s children need.
“All students deserve educational options,” said Fogelman. “We are redefining what ‘need’ is.”
For more information, see www.soulcharterschool.org.
Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at email@example.com.