The San Dieguito Union High School (SDUHSD) board heard strong support for the new School of Universal Learning (SOUL) charter school at its Sept. 15 meeting. The hearing was the next step in the process for the district’s first-ever charter school petition — the board will make a final decision on whether to approve the school at its Oct. 13 meeting, to be held at San Dieguito High School Academy.
In over 45 minutes of public comment, teachers, parents and young students said they would love to see a school like SOUL come to the Encinitas community.
One eighth grader at Diegueno Middle School spoke about being severely bullied in the fourth grade and being diagnosed with depression and anxiety. She said she has become fearful of going to school, crying herself to sleep at night and, two summers ago, feeling suicidal. She said she is so scared of going to high school that she has considered online school.
“I know I’m not alone but I feel alone. I don’t tell many people for the fear of the embarrassment or the rumors,” said the brave young student. “I had lost hope but I now I have a glimmer of hope that maybe I might find a place where I fit in, where I’m not constantly depressed. That glimmer of hope brought me here, it’s the reason I’m talking to you….When I read about SOUL in the newspaper, I smiled. A real smile. It may not feel like much to others but it is a big deal to me. So I ask please, please approve SOUL.”
SOUL’s co-founders Michael Grimes and Marisa Bruyneel are hoping to open the 7-12th grade school in 2017, with a capacity that would reach 600 students.
“Our vision for SOUL is to create and prove a new model of education, one that emphasizes holistic education, connects students to their life’s passion and purpose, and enables them to develop the tools and skills needed to live their best lives,” Bruyneel said.
They aim to create a “conscious and intentional culture” on a campus where students feel safe. A typical day includes their unique “Integra” program in which students start the day by setting their intentions and meditating, have a midday focus on self development and an end-of-the-day reflection session. Academics are a combination of experience-based and project-based learning and required electives, including entrepreneurship and essential life skills. Grimes said all of the Common Core State Standards will be mastered and students will be assessed with MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) tests and Smarter Balanced Assessment tests like all public schools.
The school expects to be fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and its courses University of California approved.
“We’re completely dedicated to ensuring the success and happiness of our students, teachers, staff and administration,” Bruyneel said. “We will honorably represent this district and prove a new model of education that will be exceptional in every way.”
At the meeting, SOUL got an endorsement from Miles Durfee, managing regional director of the California Charter Schools Association, (CSSA) who has children in the district. His daughter attended Earl Warren and his son loves Pacific Trails Middle School, which Durfee considers a fantastic, innovative, tech-savvy school with engaged teachers. He said the district has “phenomenal” schools of choice, but he was able to have his kids attend them by moving to the area. He said he believes SOUL meets all the legal standards for charter schools and the CSSA has developed a great relationship with Bruyneel and Grimes, whom he finds to have the kind of passion that makes schools great.
“I hope we can all work together to see another fantastic choice for 600 students,” Durfee said.
In the board’s questions to SOUL, SDUHSD Vice President Joyce Dalessandro wondered how deeply the charter school had investigated the district’s Sunset High School.
“There’s a lot going in this district and these are schools of choice,” Dalessandro said, noting Sunset seems to achieve many of the goals they have presented.
Bruyneel said they are not comparing themselves to SDUHSD schools but offering something different. She said she has not seen the focus that they have in developing the whole child and their Integra program in SDUHSD schools. Bruyneel and Grimes also said that there were some “alarming statistics” at Sunset in terms of students not performing at their highest.
“Having another option only helps meet more students’ needs,” Grimes said.
Rick Ayala, Sunset’s principal for the last eight years, said Sunset is technically a continuation school but he thinks there are a lot of misconceptions about that term – it is a school of choice, an alternative to the comprehensive high schools in the district.
“Ninety-five percent of our students are here voluntarily for three reasons: Some are here to accelerate their progress to graduate early, some are here to recover credits and get caught up, and others because they’d rather be at a small school,” said Ayala of the school that typically peaks at 160 students.
Ayala did not agree with the statements that his students were not performing or failing.
“To me it just sounds like somebody asked SOUL a question and they had a knee-jerk reaction because they weren’t prepared to answer that question,” Ayala said, noting no one from SOUL has ever spoken to him about the school or visited, which Grimes did acknowledge. “My gut feeling was that was a jab at what we do without the person knowing what we do. To say that students are failing is an uninformed statement.”
Ayala gave just one example of a former student who spent four years at Sunset, graduated early to attend UC Berkeley, where he graduated with honors, and is now attending Yale Law School.
The board also voiced concerns about the math curriculum and meeting state standards, the enrollment process, funding and the school location. Trustee John Salazar asked how the school will handle special needs students with a relatively small budget.
Grimes said the math curriculum being developed will specifically meet the state standards and noted that it is illegal for charters to have admissions requirements. As far as funding, they plan to launch a crowd-sourcing campaign in October and are eying the Pacific View property as a potential location. Grimes said for their budget, they are working with Charter School Management Corporation as their “back-office provider” for financial management and operations expertise.
One Encinitas resident, Justin Stockton, had questions about whether project-based experiential learning is achievable in large segments and also had concerns about the school’s “spiritual” side —after seeing the “brouhaha” created by yoga in the elementary school, he wondered about the legal challenges and the potential litigation with a school that takes that approach with public dollars.
Bruyneel said they have moved away from using the highly-charged word “spiritual” in their petition and have changed it to “personal development.” She said the school is in no way religious. She also noted that their class sizes will be small at a 25:1 ratio.
Tony Ricciuti, an Encinitas native who has 24 years of experience in education, praised the school for what they are trying to accomplish.
“It breaks my heart everyday when kids come to middle school and they’ve already been beaten. They tell you ‘I’m stupid’ or ‘I don’t know things’ and it makes me want to cry,” Ricciuti said. “I’ve been trying to do the things they’re talking about doing within the public education system…I hope San Dieguito will open your arms and welcome them. If they don’t, somebody will.”
Robert MacPhee, an Encinitas speaker and facilitator who helps colleges and high schools like San Dieguito through his” Excellent Decisions” program, also complimented SOUL for the conversation they are starting.
“Our young people are going out into an environment where they are faced with incredible stress and pressure,” MacPhee said, noting students need to develop a strong sense of self to make decisions about issues such as binge drinking, drugs, bullying, sex and, as they heard that night, suicide. “What I’ve seen is that the students with the strongest sense of self, who really know who they are in addition to having all the academic skills, are the ones who are truly thriving.”