The future of the School of Universal Learning (SOUL) Charter School is in the hands of the San Diego County Board of Education, as board members meet Feb. 6 to consider SOUL’s request to renew its charter.
Because SOUL chose to operate within the boundaries of the San Dieguito Union High School District, SOUL first approached SDUHSD in 2016 for authorization which was denied.
SOUL then petitioned the county for a five-year authorization in early 2017. The county denied five years but gave the school two years. SOUL is now asking for a three-year extension.
In her presentation to the county board Jan. 9, SOUL Executive Director Marisa Fogelman said, “One might have thought given the two-year limited charter term awarded, we wouldn’t have much to show for ourselves.”
However, in only 14 months, the school has had considerable accomplishments, she said.
English department head Corey MacGorman said students are given the NWEA MAP exam three times a year, and the results show “outstanding academic growth.”
MAP, which stands for Measures of Academic Progress, is an online assessment aligned to Common Core state standards.
Fogelman said a highly anticipated WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) accreditation is expected in February.
Students with disabilities who didn’t feel traditional schools met their needs are also being successfully served, she said.
Enrollment has increased by 167 percent, she said, opening in 2017 with 36 students and in 2018 with 96. The school began serving two grades and has now expanded to grades 7-10, with the intention of adding 11th grade and 12th grade in the next two years.
Wendy Kaveney, SOUL’s Director of Operations, told the board that SOUL’s conservative estimate for enrollment growth is 50 percent each year, growing from 110 currently to 165 for 2019-2020.
Of those 165 students, about 66 percent will come from the San Dieguito district and the remainder from other districts.
Adequate funding has also been addressed, Fogelman told the county board, saying, “Parents have taken great ownership” and raised $85,000 in two months. Combined with additional funding, she said the school has enough money to ensure a year in reserves.
She said strategic partnerships have been secured “that enhance our curriculum” and have made SOUL a place where “students feel empowered to fail and learn from the experience.”
Because the founders recognize the need for students entering the work force to develop strong collaboration, communication, teamwork and critical thinking skills, project-based learning is integrated into all areas of academics, which include English and language arts, history, science, math and electives.
Project-based learning is a primary feature of the SOUL curriculum, and all academic learning is consistent with California state standards.
In addition, Fogelman said SOUL offers a strong focus on social and emotional intelligence and described her school’s mission for students as a place where they learn “to know who they are, discover their passions and purpose, and thrive holistically.”
The school’s program includes educating the whole child: mentally, socially, emotionally, physically and personally.
At the school, a poster features the five stages of focus: holistic, academic, entrepreneurship, conscious and intentional (culture), and family and connection.
Grace, a 10th-grade SOUL student, said, “The culture at SOUL is my favorite part. It makes us all feel like a family.”
SOUL parent Julie Anderson, whose daughter attended SOUL last year and this year, intends to enroll her again next year.
“They have provided everything they have promised me at that first parent meeting, and more,” she said.
Anderson, who lives in south Carlsbad in the San Dieguito district, said families should have options for public education.
Another SOUL parent, Patti Riley, said SOUL is not simply an alternative for those who feel traditional schools don’t work, and that any student can benefit.
“It’s very innovative,” she said. “It’s a great vision and a great idea whose time has come.”
She said her daughter has flourished from both the integrated social and emotional learning (SEL) component, as well as project-based learning which she called “the new frontier.”
“The embedded SEL program is aligned with current research for success in college, the work force and life, by recognizing the linkage between SEL and cognitive and academic development,” Riley said in an email.
Project-based learning at SOUL allows them to work on much more relevant topics, she said, noting that her daughter “is digging a lot deeper than she would at one of the local high schools.”
San Diego Workforce Partnership CEO Peter Callstrom, Riley’s husband, spoke at the county board meeting, saying, “Of course San Dieguito has an excellent reputation, but we needed a different option.”
He said he and his wife “have been committed to finding the right fit for our daughter, and SOUL has been that fit. At SOUL [daughter] has thrived not just academically but in confidence, great personal responsibility, emotional growth, and anxiety management. This is the result of the passion of the directors and teachers whose mission is to educate the whole child.”
Riley and Callstrom, who live in Carmel Valley, said their daughter will continue at SOUL next year.
An overflow crowd at the Jan. 9 county school board meeting heard from a number of speakers, one of whom was 10th-grade SOUL student Grace who said she felt alienated at her previous school, “and now I know it was because of lack of connection, of closed mindsets.”
The whole-child program at SOUL known as Integra “has created a judgment-free safe space and ensures that everyone is able to speak about how they really feel and what is going on in their lives,” Grace said. “Integra has taught me to understand my feelings and actions.”
“I have been able to bring these lessons outside of school and help my family and friends through difficult times,” she said.
Grace said she was “beyond grateful” for SOUL and Integra. “I wish more people had this opportunity.”
Eighth-grade student Ella said SOUL has given her back her love of learning. She said the project-based learning at SOUL “is not only teaching us important academics, but teamwork and problem-solving skills as well as perseverance and grit.”
In her words, it’s teaching “how to handle setbacks and keep moving forward.”
“Most of the projects at SOUL are self-directed which is an essential skill to have in life,” Ella said.
“I’ve never been to a school where everyone was so connected,” said Keegan, a SOUL eighth-grader. “I’m a better person and feel like I’m being prepared for an amazing future by being a part of SOUL.”
Natalie Suzi, a teacher at SOUL who works on the entrepreneur program, said the program “creates a space for students to think big, to visualize their dreams and to learn the practical lessons they need to learn.”
She said students are taught how to find lessons in their mistakes and get back up again.
“At SOUL we teach what it looks like to really be an entrepreneur,” she said.
California Charter Schools Association’s Michelle Anderson, Regional Manager for Orange County and San Diego, told the board that CCSA advocates for charter schools when they show promise, and for closure when they don’t.
About SOUL, she said, “I’m here in support of their renewal; we believe in what they are doing.”
Other speakers included more parents who spoke about the positive changes they have seen in their children since enrolling at SOUL. No one spoke against the renewal.
SDUHSD Supt. Robert Haley at the county meeting said San Dieguito is interested to see what the county board will do – and because SOUL has requested facilities from the district under Proposition 39, “that adds to our interest.”
Under state legislation, Proposition 39 allows charter schools to request facilities from the school district in which they operate – in this case San Dieguito – with rent at fair market value.
The district initially denied access to facilities for 2019-2020 based on the district’s methodology for calculating SOUL’s enrollment numbers.
SOUL needed the district to confirm at least 80 in-district students intent on enrolling next year; San Dieguito came up with 76.8.
The district has been criticized for the methods used to project accurate enrollment.
Haley defended his approach and said he’s not for the school or against it – he’s only following the law under Prop. 39.
Fogelman asked the district to reconsider in a lengthy eight-page letter.
“They have until Feb. 1 to make an offer,” she said. SOUL is currently housed at the Boys & Girls Club in Solana Beach which is too small to accommodate SOUL’s anticipated enrollment for next year.
Fogelman was confident the district was taking all the facts into consideration and would handle the process fairly.
In an interview after the Jan. 9 meeting, Haley said, “I listened carefully to her presentation. I thought it was passionate, I thought it was reasonable. I get her point of view.”
When asked if he was against the renewal of the charter, he said, “No, why would I be against it?”
“The interactions I’ve had with Marisa have been very reasonable,” he added.
Vote for renewal
A Dec. 23, 2018 article in this newspaper detailed a new focus in the San Dieguito district on social and emotional learning, quoting a district spokesperson saying the goal “is to infuse social-emotional learning into students’ everyday activities” and build “a strong sense of community, a sense of purpose and sense of belonging.”
This has been SOUL’s focus since its inception, when founders early on recognized the need for teens to feel more connected with their emotions and those of others, increase self-awareness and self-worth and empathy, relate to others in nonjudgmental ways, and appreciate their own unique talents and that of their peers.
In the short 14 months that SOUL has been in operation, the school has met all benchmarks for success: enrollment numbers, funding, academic success through its project-based learning approach and an expected WASC accreditation, and holistically through the school’s heavy focus on social and emotional learning.
Given all this evidence and the passion of the speakers at the Jan. 9 meeting, it’s hard to imagine a denial of the school’s petition for another three years.
The San Diego County Board of Education will decide SOUL’s fate at its Feb. 6 meeting. If the county grants SOUL an additional three years, the school’s next hurdle will be access to adequate facilities under Prop. 39.
Charter schools are public schools that operate on per-pupil funding from the state and are less constrained than traditional public schools but still must conform to Common Core state standards and meet yearly measurements for improvement.
For more information, see: https://soulcharterschool.org/
Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org