New downtown Fresno charter school gets creative to meet budget

The Fresno BeeSeptember 6, 2013 

At the new Kepler Neighborhood School in downtown Fresno, it's not unusual to see middle schoolers pounding rulers on pavement and overturned garbage bins during "stomp" class. Students take over an auditorium in the morning to practice their hip-hop routine and a trio of electric guitarists rock out to 1970's classic tunes in the school's basement.

The independent school chartered by Fresno Unified School District last fall opened its doors in August with three goals: build students' creativity, character and sense of community in an area of town where almost half of families live in poverty. It offers nontraditional art classes and requires each student to do community service projects.

But in the bustling building that holds 200 students, there's a sense of unease, too: the charter shares many of the same challenges that independent start-up schools face, such as finding transportation to get kids to and from school and tinkering with shoestring operating budgets to pay the bills.

"Charter schools do not typically have buses because they're so expensive and ... we also have to pay for our rent, which regular schools do not. So we're about 60% of a normal budget in terms of what we can do," said Shiela Skibbie, Kepler's vice principal and one of the school's lead developers.

It's the third week of school, but Friday marked only the fourth day classes were held in the school's permanent space at the Cornerstone Church Conference Center on Fulton Avenue.

That's because the school's fire alarm system has been malfunctioning, forcing teachers to hold class in Cornerstone's other downtown buildings.

Some rooms are still without desks and chairs, said school principal Christine Montanez -- state dollars that were expected months ago to fund curriculum planning and supplies only flowed in last week.

The school's largest challenge is funding. It was awarded $575,000 under the state's Public Charter Schools Grant Program and also obtained a $250,000 loan to kick-start the program. As it does for regular public schools, the state also chips in dollars on a per-pupil basis. Kepler's annual budget is $1.5 million.

But the school pays $10,000 a month for rent -- about 10 cents per square foot -- a lease agreement Montanez calls a deal. But she said she needs to start thinking about the future -- and raising enough money to purchase a permanent school or build one.

Tight budgets also keep Kepler teachers' salaries lower than their public school colleagues, Montanez said.

"You get to be creative in founding this thing, almost like an entrepreneur," she said. "However, you also have to be creative in finding grants and funding, because of the fact that you do receive less funding per pupil."

Those challenges mean her team has to be flexible and innovative when planning curriculum.

Take Bruce Addison, a fourth-grade instructor who teaches a wood-burning class to kids in grades four through eight.

On Friday, Addison led a troop armed with wood-burning pens who etched their names into reclaimed wood pallets.

"This is their canvas," he said. "The arts have been taken out of school, and this is an opportunity for them to come back in a way that they aren't normally seen."

Fourth-graders Isaac Ford, 9, and Javonnie Contraras, 10, diligently sanded their boards without instruction. About 20% of Kepler kids live in central Fresno. But some, including Ford, make their way each day from Selma, Clovis and Madera to the new school.

"I love it," said Isaac, who went to school in Clovis last year. "This is like the best school."

Reach the reporter at (559) 441-6412 or

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