Education Matters: SOUL charter school on track to open this fall

With approval granted by the San Diego County Board of Education in January, the School of Universal Learning (SOUL) Charter School is on its way to opening this fall within the boundaries of the San Dieguito Union High School District.

Co-founders Marisa Bruyneel and Michael Grimes say the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, which has bolstered their commitment to their mission and the work ahead.

They remain enthusiastic and upbeat even as they face the not insignificant challenge of securing a facility.

“We know it’s the most difficult piece of the puzzle,” Bruyneel said.

Grimes said they have options that could work but none are ideal.

“Nothing is quite right yet,” he said. “We know there’s the perfect space out there for us somewhere.”

Miles Durfee, Southern California Managing Regional Director of the California Charter Schools Association, said, “For every charter school, the biggest barrier is always the facility.”

Durfee said they may have to settle for something less than perfect, which could be temporary until a permanent facility can be secured.

Worst case would be deferring the opening for a year, which Durfee said sometimes happens with newly authorized charter schools.

But he’s optimistic SOUL will open on schedule. “There’s still a lot of time to get a facility in place,” he said. “I’m not worried yet.”

SOUL has funding from the state for its facility, and Durfee said this matters because they are not simply begging for free space.

The charter school would pay to lease land or rent a facility, he said. So any organization or school district with space or land available that’s looking for a way to increase revenue might find leasing to SOUL an attractive option.

“They would pay market rate on a lease for the property,” Durfee said. “Private schools do that all the time.”

Grimes said they need 7,000 to 8,000 square feet the first year, when they open with only two grades – seventh and ninth. The second year, when eighth and 10th grades are added, they’ll need about 15,000 square feet of space. Eleventh grade will be added the third year, and 12th grade the fourth year.

SOUL plans for an anticipated total of 600 students (100 per grade in grades 7-12) when fully operational.

Students and teachers

Other than finding a facility, the co-founders said they are on track with the other important needs: funding, enrollment and staffing.

Grimes said their facility budget is $250,000 for the first year and double that the second year.

Besides outside funding and funding from the state based mainly on the average daily attendance of students, SOUL was awarded $375,000 from the Public Charter Schools Grant Program which, according to the California Department of Education website, provides “startup and initial operating capital to assist schools in establishing high quality, high performing charter school operations for California students and their families.”

Bruyneel said they’ve held two parent sessions to date and have been impressed with parental response. “Parents are so aligned and so supportive,” she said.

“The greatest part of this process is meeting parents,” Grimes said. “They ask good questions, and we appreciate their enthusiasm.”

He said he’s confident enrollment goals will be met.

Students need teachers, and Bruyneel said they’ve completed their first round of hiring.

“We know the school will only be as good as its teachers,” she said. “They need to be able to implement our vision and must embody SOUL principles.”

She said applicants are being asked to describe themselves on four levels: self, world, community and teaching. They can submit their applications in any form they choose.

“We got amazing videos,” Grimes said. “Teachers who have applied have been incredible.”

Some applicants are new to teaching, some are former substitutes, and others are current teachers. Applications are coming in locally as well as from across the country, Bruyneel said.

SOUL will start with a staff of 17: eight core curriculum teachers (for math, science, English and history), two elective teachers (music/arts/media arts and foreign language), four support staff and three administrators (Bruyneel, Grimes and founding team leader Dr. Wendy Kaveney).

Demonstrating progress

Because the school was only authorized for two years instead of the customary five, SOUL will have to demonstrate progress in only about 16 months before the founders need to go back to the SD County Board of Education in early 2019 for reauthorization.

Grimes acknowledged that SOUL may not be able to show significant academic growth in just one year.

But he said they will test students at the beginning and end of the school year and have a way to measure what they feel is equally important: emotional and social development.

In addition, students will present a project every nine weeks at a review night for parents and teachers. And at the end of each semester, students will be required to do a “presentation of growth” that the community can attend.

In this way, said Bruyneel, “each student takes part in their own assessment.”

Bruyneel said she and Grimes “have been developing the concept for SOUL for a very long time.”

The two met through mutual friends (they are not married to each other) and have what Bruyneel said is a “perfect alignment” and the same vision for what education needs to be.

SOUL’s mission is to “provide exceptional education that awakens individuals to know who they are, discover their passions and purpose, and thrive holistically, to achieve both mental and life mastery.”

This is not the typical public school parents and students are familiar with.

Besides academic achievement, SOUL’s integrated holistic program seeks to help students understand their place in the world, their inner worth and value, and their unique ability to shine with talent all their own.

Beyond all that, the further draw for parents and students includes the small school environment, project-based learning, an entrepreneurial focus, and a combined middle and high school.

“Students deserve to have the option to attend a smaller school, and one that is dedicated to developing them mentally, emotionally, socially, physically and personally,” Bruyneel said. “SOUL intends to change the educational paradigm and ensure that students graduate high school with the tools and skills needed to thrive.”

She called this “a revolutionary model of education” and said they are “looking forward to being the first charter school in the San Dieguito district.”

“They are definitely unique in their program,” said CCSA’s Durfee.

SOUL, Durfee said, aims to offer San Dieguito students an educational option in a district where not every student’s needs are being met in the traditional way.

“It’s a great story of leaders who have a great passion,” he said.

A partnership

This is not to say that SOUL’s founders don’t applaud San Dieguito’s achievements.

“We acknowledge your schools have already forged a path of excellence,” Bruyneel said to the SDUHSD board at its Oct. 13 meeting, when the board denied SOUL’s petition.

Grimes said SOUL would be giving the district another exceptional school to its options.

Students deserve choices, they said, as not every school meets every student’s individual needs.

Although the county is SOUL’s authorizing agency, that does not mean that SDUHSD no longer has a role to play in SOUL’s ability to fulfill its mission.

San Dieguito could do more to help identify a facility, which could be structured as temporary housing if the district is reluctant to make the arrangement permanent.

Such a deal would generate income that would help reduce San Dieguito’s enormous $9.2 million deficit.

In the spirit of cooperation, San Dieguito could also allow SOUL students to try out and play on the district’s high school sports teams.

“Sports team participation would be nice to have,” Grimes said. After all, these students would be attending the district’s high schools if SOUL were not an option.

“The district may enter into an agreement with a charter school on this,” Durfee said. “As I understand it, there are districts that do partner with charter schools in this way.”

Although the district cannot be compelled to do this, Durfee was hopeful that SDUHSD can be convinced “to openly partner in the best interest of the whole student’s needs.”

“Every issue can find a viable solution,” Grimes said.

Even though he has said in the past that he wishes them well, SDUHSD superintendent Eric Dill was the only speaker to oppose the authorization of SOUL at the SD County Board of Education meeting in January.

Nevertheless, Bruyneel and Grimes insist the relationship is healthy.

“We all want to work together,” said Grimes, who stressed that he hoped the district “can see us as another great option for their students as opposed to seeing us as competition.”

SOUL will have a booth at the Earth Day Fair at Balboa Park on April 23 and at the Encinitas Street Fair April 29-30. A private “Celebration of SOUL” is planned for May, “to celebrate our success and say thank you to the community,” Bruyneel said.

For more information and to access student enrollment forms and staffing applications, see SOUL’s website:

-- Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at