Minarets High creates charter within school

Ability to draw new students may hurt Yosemite Unified.

July 30, 2011 

Officials with Minarets High School in eastern Madera County have formed a charter school after battling for a year with neighboring districts over student recruitment.

The charter was spearheaded by Minarets administrators as part of a growing trend in the Valley toward "dependent" charters, schools sponsored by districts instead of independent organizations.

The move creates a separate charter school within the 2-year-old, $75 million high school, allowing it to enroll students from all over the Valley.

It also allows administrators at the O'Neals high school to hire teachers for specialty classes who may not have a full teaching credential.

Students at Minarets High and Minarets Charter will be able to take classes in both schools. Aside from the school name on student transcripts and having separate budgets, the two schools will function as one entity because they will share faculty and school facilities, Minarets Principal Michael Niehoff said.

"About half of our students come from other districts, primarily Yosemite Unified," he said. "This allows students who don't want to face the odds of getting a transfer approved to sign up for the charter school."

About 400 students have signed up for classes at Minarets for the next school year, and officials believe the new charter designation might bring in another 125.

"Without the charter, it would've taken a while to fill the school to capacity," Niehoff said.

Minarets originally was designed for 650 students, but the scuttling of a planned subdivision at the southern edge of the district slowed enrollment. When Minarets started enrolling students from other districts, it drew fire from nearby Yosemite Unified School District, which has been losing enrollment.

Yosemite Unified, based in Oakhurst, had 261 interdistrict transfers at the end of the last school year. About half went to Minarets High.

The new charter leaves Yosemite Unified Superintendent Steve Raupp unsure about how many students the district will have on the first day of school.

"The students don't need to notify us," he said. "So we have no way of developing budgets or planning staffing levels -- it poses a significant challenge."

Most of the funding for schools comes from a formula based on the school's "average daily attendance" -- the more students who attend, the more money the school gets from the state.

Yosemite district revenues have fallen from $21.6 million in 2007-08 to $18.7 million in 2010-11, and enrollment is down from 2,447 to 1,965 in the same time period.

In April, Yosemite Unified officials halted district transfers and sued Minarets administrators to keep them from enrolling any more Yosemite students.

Minarets administrators started working on their charter-school application the same month.

Yosemite "fought the charter all the way up to Sacramento until they realized it wasn't something they could stop," Niehoff said.

Raupp confirmed Yosemite Unified met with state officials for months to keep Minarets from forming a charter.

"We had quite a few discussions with the California Department of Education," Raupp said. "But, in reality, if the chartering district approves the application, there's not anything else that anyone in another district can do."

It's unclear whether Yosemite Unified will drop its lawsuit. "That's something we're still looking into," Raupp said.

The dependent charter concept is gaining steam throughout the state, particularly in Los Angeles and Sacramento.

Locally, the Fresno Unified School District helped to create the Morris E. Dailey Charter Elementary School last year. Other local charters have been developed in concert with districts and college campuses recently, such as University High School on the campus of California State University, Fresno, and University Preparatory High School at College of the Sequoias in Visalia.

But the schools are criticized by charter advocates, like the California Charter Schools Association, who say dependent charters lack the autonomy charters need for success.

"The benefit of converting to a charter is greater control of curriculum and instruction, professional development, budget and other flexibility as expressed in each charter," said Vicky Waters, a CCSA spokeswoman. "Anything less than full autonomy diminishes educators' ability to implement programs and be accountable for the progress of their students."

Charters are given more latitude with their curriculums and are exempt from many of the rules governing traditional schools. The charter designation might also open up additional funding.

Minarets earned recognition in recent years for its media and arts curriculums. The school provides laptops to every student and offers a wealth of electives, such as music production or mountain biking. The school will open its $4.2 million agricultural mechanics facility next year.

The charter school's director, Jon Corippo, said the charter designation also will help the school add more electives.

"It gives us much more leeway academically," he said.

Corippo said he will be able to hire teachers who are professionals in their field, and not fully credentialed teachers, to teach specialty classes, such as welding.

"It will operate much like vocational classes or work experience," he said.

The reporter can be reached at vgibbons@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6378.

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