Sierra Crest charter school makes appeal to board
Nevada Appeal News Service
MINDEN – The future of Sierra Crest Academy came down to a battle between head and heart Wednesday night.
On one side, Douglas County School District staff presented to the school board a detailed account of the Minden-based charter school’s noncompliance, ranging from a lack of curriculum for its 66 seventh- through 12th-grade students to a failure to adhere to the Nevada Open Meeting Law.
The district, which sponsors the charter, maintained that their recommendation for revocation stemmed not from malice, but from the school’s repeated failure to correct compliance issues over the past six years. Enacted in 2004, the school’s charter expires in June.
“I want to acknowledge the importance of alternative education,” said Assistant Superintendent Lyn Gorrindo, who is responsible for auditing the school each year. “We know not all kids are successful in the classroom.”
But when it comes to Sierra Crest, Gorrindo said, the school has no curricular guides.
“I can’t tell you what’s going on in there, or what they’re teaching,” she said.
On the other side of the debate, more than 70 parents, teachers and students made the case that despite its shortcomings, the school catches those students who would otherwise fall through the cracks of the system.
In some instances, parents said it’s literally a matter of life or death.
“In second grade, my daughter was suicidal,” said parent Liz Weirauch. “Students made fun of her, and teachers didn’t care. By the sixth grade, she had made her first attempt.”
Sierra Crest changed things, Weirauch said. It gave her daughter, who is a high-achieving student, the right atmosphere in which to flourish.
“Thank God for Sierra Crest Academy,” she said. “I feel bad that some staff in the district don’t care about the school.”
After three hours of emotional public comment, Douglas County School Board members voted 4-0 to continue the item until their June meeting. Board member Randy Green, who has a contract to teach government this semester at Sierra Crest, abstained. Trustees Tom Moore and Cindy Trigg were absent.
School board members instructed Sierra Crest’s governing board to adopt the action plan submitted by parent Renee Sweeney, which outlines specific steps to be taken by certain dates to attain compliance, including amending the charter.
They also urged Sierra Crest to not only adopt the plan, but to incorporate a provision that the school will voluntarily close in a year’s time if the issues haven’t been rectified.
Gorrindo said that if Sierra Crest has a clean audit next year, and is off the federal watch list, the school can switch to state sponsorship.
Gorrindo raised several concerns about Sierra Crest courses. She said the district supports the intent of the school’s charter to offer project-based learning, but that students had too much discretion in formulating the projects and tracking standards.
In the case of first-semester American studies, there were six assignments, out of which three were movie questions.
“I’m still wondering about rigor,” Gorrindo said. “I cannot say these are aligned with state standards.”
For first-semester English I, Gorrindo said she could find no grades at all, though grades appeared on students’ transcripts.
Gorrindo argued that data shows students are becoming less proficient in core areas. Tracking the class of 2011, she said 14 seventh-graders entered the school with 86 percent proficiency in reading and 71 percent proficiency in math. Twenty students of the same class were tested in 10th grade, and reading proficiency had dropped to 75 percent and math to 35 percent. However, of those, only nine students remain enrolled as juniors.
Former Sierra Crest administrator Dave Brackett, who resigned in April, disagreed with Gorrindo’s assessment. He said the kind of data Gorrindo used cannot be applied to Sierra Crest, as the school has seen a high rate of transiency.
“If you can show mastery of content, you do not need to have 60 hours of seat-time,” he said.
Many parents said their children will drop out rather than go back to traditional school.
“This school has to stay open,” said parent Sheila Barth. “Budget, compliance – these don’t mean anything to these kids. What the school means to them is that they have a place where they can go to learn and be successful.”