It was supposed to be a showcase for the dot-com era, dedicated to the proposition that students from kindergarten to 12th grade didn't need a "brick and mortar" school with old-fashioned teachers but instead could be taught at home, via the miracle of the World Wide Web. In the fall of 2000, the best and the brightest from the Greater San Diego chamber of commerce's "Education Roundtable," key backers of San Diego Unified School District superintendent Alan Bersin and his controversial education reform efforts, brought the proposal to the school board for quick approval and funding.
The new school was to be called "Global Learning @ Home" and, according to its sponsors, it would do nothing less than revolutionize education. "The four main criteria for the Global Learning family," according to the presentation made to the board that October, "will be an adventurous spirit, a quest for the best educational experience, a high regard for the use of technology as a vehicle for learning, and the desire to be directly involved in their child's education."
Though details about the proposed curriculum and teaching methods were scarce, backers promised, "Global Learning @ Home will follow a rich, theme-based technology-embedded curriculum that emphasizes parent/student interaction, computer-assisted instruction, project-based learning and performance-based assessment. The learning materials will be both traditional and innovative in nature and come from rich and varied sources, and the curriculum choices made now and in the future will reflect changing standards in the state, country, and the world."
But two years and about $125,000 of government funding later, plans to start the school were abruptly abandoned, with little to show for the effort. "On January 30, 2001, the Board approved the granting of a charter for the Global Learning @ Home Charter School, an independent study charter school," wrote school district general counsel Jo Anne SawyerKnoll in a memo dated May 31, 2002. "The school had initially proposed to open in September 2001. This opening date was later postponed to the Fall of 2002.
"We are now advised that the charter school corporation will cease operating and that the charter school corporation will be dissolving due to less than favorable prospects for operating the school. The termination of operations should be completed within the near future. Global Learning @ Home is the first District charter school to voluntarily terminate its charter."
What happened? A review of school-district records, along with interviews with many of those involved with the startup, reveal that early plans lacked focus and suffered from poor accounting and business practices. Others close to the situation claim that interference from the chamber of commerce, conflicts of interest, and excessive spending on consultants, travel, entertainment, and dining doomed the effort.
A chamber of commerce source contends that there never really was a plan for the school, just a brochure filled with educational jargon and technical buzzwords. The school's last director, Hank Harris, says he was forced to give up and take a job in Santa Monica when the software and curriculum material promised him when he was hired by the school's board of directors failed to materialize.
Critics say that the school's failure illustrates what can happen when charter-school sponsors are too closely aligned with political interests with influence over the school district. They point to the fact that the district's assistant counsel, attorney Tad Parzen, is chairman of the chamber of commerce foundation. Others say the idea for the school was just too ambitious for the chamber foundation's limited consulting talent to deliver on.
The district and its chief, Alan Bersin, have remained silent about the school's failure. Parzen failed to return repeated phone calls. The board of education has never been briefed on the matter or discussed it at an open board meeting. "It's as if it vanished into thin air," says one district insider familiar with the case. "The people at the chamber of commerce spent all of the money on planning and travel, and then it went poof." The state's office of education, which approved the grant, acknowledges that the charter school never opened but has not conducted an audit to find out why, saying that such oversight is the responsibility of the district.
"I came in rather late," says Harris, who is now principal of Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica, where he moved after leaving San Diego in the summer of 2002. "It had been two or three years in the planning. I was hired as a last possibility to see if the school could get open. I came to see in fairly short order that that was not likely. Since there was a grant involved, I thought we might as well wrap it up, and the remaining funds should go back to the state. So I tendered my resignation."
Chamber of commerce officials are reluctant to discuss the school and its troubled history. Ginger Hovenic, the school's chief architect and president of the chamber's foundation, hung up the phone after repeatedly demanding to know who had provided the school's financial records used in the preparation of this story. Two of her associates, Eden Steele and Diane Hadfield, listed in school-district documents as paid consultants to the venture, also declined to discuss their roles.
"I discontinued working with them because I went on disability," Steele said in a brief telephone interview from her home last week. "Call Ginger Hovenic and ask her about it. I heard a year later they were no longer in existence." When asked how much she was paid by the school and whether she ever claimed reimbursement for meals and travel, Steele terminated the conversation.
The petition for Global Learning, required under the state's charterschool law, was signed by Steele and two others, listed as "teacher petitioners," Hadfield and Rosemary Rodman. Steele's address was listed as 402 West Broadway, Suite 1000, the same address as the chamber of commerce. Both Hadfield, who also works for the chamber foundation, and Steele later became paid consultants to the school. Sandy Murphy, a former executive with Cox Communications, also says she had an early role in developing the school's notion of "distance learning" via the Internet.