Administrators at Castle Park Middle School created controversy in August 2013 when they spent thousands to improve the school’s appearance for secretary of state Arne Duncan’s visit.
Another controversial Castle Park makeover is now under way.
The district proposes to extend the K-3 Stephen Hawking Charter School offerings to K-8 by using empty classrooms on Castle Park Middle’s campus. The campus would serve as a location for both schools. Proposition 39 allows charter schools to use empty classrooms.
Some teachers suggest, however, that the classrooms were emptied intentionally. Lauren McClellan, a Sweetwater teacher perceives it this way:
“While enrollment has decreased for schools on the west side [of Chula Vista] as a result of SUHSD's open boundaries policy, [Castle Park principal Robert] Bleisch has also been strategically emptying classrooms at Castle Park Middle by eliminating programs (e.g., music, special ed. moderate to severe). He has actively been making room for Hawking Charter to expand from a K-3 school to a K-8 school.”
McClellan also stated: “Hawking is an independent charter — it is not controlled by a publicly elected school board, but rather by a board of directors (all current or former SUHSD administrators). The public has no voice in the management of this charter school.”
Castle Park teacher Diane Ince says that the language used to convince parents to enroll their students in the charter school suggests the charter will offer more “choice.” However, Ince says that the district has reduced the offerings at the middle school — which makes the charter school more appealing.
Castle Park teacher Noel Ortiz says experts have documented difficulties with two schools sharing one campus. She said start and stop times and times for sharing the common areas will need to be staggered. Ortiz worries that traffic problems and noise levels will increase as a result.
When principal Bleisch announced a charter meeting on January 23, teachers held an informational picket and later attended the meeting. They felt these actions were necessary based on their experience at the previous meeting, on December 10: parents were told that the December 10 meeting was mandatory and Castle Park teachers were not allowed to speak.
Sweetwater Education Association president Roberto Rodriguez said to tell parents an informational meeting about a charter school is mandatory was “if not illegal, in poor taste and poor judgment. It appears the district is trying to coerce parents into removing their children from our schools — and siphon funds from our district students.”
The January 23 meeting was facilitated by Bleisch and district consultant Susan Mitchell. Mitchell is a retired Sweetwater administrator who is now paid $35,000, according to her contract, for “conducting the necessary research and preparation for the establishment of a K-16 Charter School for the Sweetwater Union High School District.”
Charter schools are typically instigated by parent demand, and Mitchell reiterated several times during the meeting that the charter was a result of parent demand.
However, when Sweetwater trustee Bertha Lopez asked parents in the audience to stand if they had requested a charter be formed, only two parents stood.
The meeting began with an overhead projection on a screen that stated: “The purpose [of the meeting] is to have a conversation about school ‘choice.’ The idea is to not convince you one way or other but rather to simply give you information so you can make the best decision for your child.”
After 50 minutes of YouTube videos favorable to charter schools and Mitchell’s presentation, parent John Molina requested that teachers present in the audience be allowed to speak. Mitchell said “Not this evening because this evening is an informational meeting of the STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts and math] charter school.”
Lopez objected and told Mitchell, “This is a public meeting, and all members of the public have a right to speak.” She went on to point out that many teachers in attendance were also taxpayers in the district.
Another parent, who identified herself as Josie, spoke up in support of the Castle Park Middle School staff. She questioned the need for a charter school and said her daughter was a successful honor student as a result of the teachers.
Mitchell offered several enticements to the parents to sign up for the charter. Chief among them was that the charter school would emphasize STEAM. She also said that students would be learning Common Core Standards and be doing project-based work.
Mitchell said the charter is “tablet-based, which means that every student will have an instrument.” She invited the audience to come and look at the Hawking charter school kindergartners with their iPads.
Mitchell also told the parents it was a 7:00 to 5:30 school and that parents did not need to pay.
According to Lopez, as the meeting broke up, one parent approached her and told her she had been confused by the process and asked her how to disenroll her child from the Hawking charter.
After the meeting, when Bleisch was asked to respond to questions for the Reader about the charter school he refused.