Education Lab

FUSD charts new course for Dailey school

Principal Melissa Dutra has sifted through 514 teacher applications, met with countless parents and helped outline a strict student dress code in preparing to open Dailey Charter Elementary School in Fresno.

This isn't just any school -- it's a new concept. Fresno Unified School District created a nonprofit organization to operate the school independent of the district, a move that allows for nonunion teachers and longer school hours.

The K-5 school is set to open Aug. 16 near Shields and Palm avenues in central Fresno and will incorporate the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate program, allowing students to transfer smoothly into IB programs at Wawona Middle and Fresno High schools.

This is all new territory for Dutra, who last worked as principal at Fresno Unified's Wilson Elementary School. She quit the district and is now employed by Fresno Innovative Charter Schools, the nonprofit organization it set up. She answers to the organization's seven-member board, which is made up of three Fresno Unified officials and four community members.

"It's such an innovative and exciting school to open," Dutra said.

So far, more than 100 students have enrolled at Dailey, where Spanish language classes will be part of the mandatory curriculum. Officials hope for more than 200 to enroll by the start of school.

All instruction will be heavily based on the development of listening and speaking skills. Visual and performing arts are also part of the school's program.

Dailey will eventually employ 17 certificated teachers when enrollment is at full capacity, about 360 students. The school is also hiring music, art and Spanish teachers -- who are not required to be state certificated, said Dutra.

School days will be longer at Dailey than at traditional schools, adding the equivalent of about 43 days of instruction. Dutra said teachers are being paid about 2% more than they would earn at most districts in the region, with annual salaries ranging from $40,000 to $55,000, based on experience.

Dutra said only one teacher hired for Dailey already had tenure elsewhere, and that teacher is taking a one-year leave of absence from Fresno Unified.

The others were teachers who either were laid off or were probationary or temporary teachers without tenure.

All are taking their jobs at Dailey without knowing what health and benefits will be provided, because those are still being negotiated, Dutra said.

Students will adhere to a strict dress code: No baggy pants. No jeans. All part of an effort to keep students focused on learning, instead of competing with one another.

Parent Rachel Ocampo, who just moved from Madera to Fresno, said she likes what Dailey is offering and has already enrolled three daughters and a son -- ages 5, 6, 7 and 8.

"It will be a nice, small environment and they will challenge my kids," she said.

Siblings Sayde and Isaiah Fuentes, ages 6 and 9, are also enrolled. "I wanted a change for my kids," said mom Georgina Hernandez.

Hernandez said she is comfortable moving her kids from Wilson to Dailey because they already know Dutra, Wilson's former principal. And unlike the private schools she was considering, Dailey is free, she said.

Not everyone loves Fresno's newest educational concept, however.

The Fresno Teachers Association is perturbed that Dailey teachers won't belong to the union that represents Fresno Unified teachers. Union officials -- along with others -- also question whether the school really will be independent.

All charters, which are publicly funded schools that have flexibility to teach in nontraditional ways, must have an authorizing school authority or sponsor. Dailey is even closer to the district, being run by a nonprofit that Fresno Unified created.

Nevertheless, "we are very much independent," Dutra said.

Initially, the nonprofit that runs Dailey had a five-person board whose members included three district officials -- Fresno Unified superintendent Michael Hanson and school trustees Carol Mills and Janet Ryan. Two community members were selected by the three Fresno Unified officials.

Because district officials held a board majority, the nonprofit wasn't sufficiently autonomous to qualify for a $600,000 federal grant, said Michelle Ruskofsky, administrator of charter schools for the state education department.

To answer this concern, the nonprofit increased the board size to seven, adding two more community members chosen by the first five.

Ruskofsky said a handful of other California charter schools started by school districts also have been asked to address board composition.

Eduardo Gonzalez, whose son will be attending Dailey, is the board president for Fresno Innovative Charter Schools and insists it will be a community-run charter, with help from Fresno Unified. "There's some input from the district," Gonzalez said. "It's very helpful to have that expertise."

But FTA President Greg Gadams said Dailey still will have too many ties to the district to consider it independent -- including contracting with Fresno Unified for many of its services.

Dailey will depend on Fresno Unified for food services, gardening and custodial care, district officials confirmed. On Wednesday, the school board postponed a contract vote until next month.

With only two months before the first day of school, Dutra is still organizing her office, hiring staff and enrolling students.

She said her goal is to have a diverse campus where students reflect the community.

There are no academic or testing requirements required for enrollment, and any family -- in or out of Fresno Unified -- can sign up, she said. Once the school is filled, a lottery will select new students from a waiting list.

But Gadams said that the school's enrollment may well hinge on whether students live within walking distance, or whether their parents can afford to drive them there from homes farther away, because Dailey won't provide school-bus transportation.

"Kids in the poor area of town can't go if they don't have transportation," he said, which could restrict the student body's diversity.

But Gonzalez, Fresno Innovative Charter's board president, says that Dailey will be both diverse and academically competitive.

"It's going to be an elite charter school and we are going to provide the highest education possible," he said.

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