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Strike Two for American Charter?

Strike-two appears imminent for a proposed charter high school. But it's not over yet.

It appears strike-two is imminent for a proposed charter high school in Santa Barbara that would have some disadvantaged students learning the construction trade and others donning police uniforms.

But Bob Noel, the founding member of the proposed American Charter High School and an elected Santa Barbara school board member, said it’s not over yet.

On Thursday afternoon, the County Board of Education will vote on whether to approve or deny American Charter’s appeal of the city school board’s springtime rejection. (The vote back in May was 4-1, with Noel himself casting the lone yes.)

County staff members are recommending another denial, saying they believe the school presents an unsound educational program.

Charter schools are bankrolled by public tax dollars, but are often started and operated by private citizens.

The proposals for the schools must be approved or denied by the elected school boards of the districts in which the charter proponents seek to reside. Charter proponents across the state often maintain that local school boards have a built-in motivation to deny charter requests, because the charter schools effectively diminish any given board’s power. To keep that phenomenon in check, charter proponents can appeal at the county and state levels. (For its part, the Santa Barbara school board has approved all three of the existing local charter schools.)

American Charter’s dozen or so key advocates — who include philanthropist Marilyn Gevirtz — envision a small school with three sections: public safety, career tech and liberal arts. Public safety students would train with police officers and firefighters. Career tech students would learn the construction trade. Liberal arts students would take pre-Advanced Placement classes that would prepare them for college. Students could take classes in two or all three sections.

The Santa Barbara school system currently has three public high schools, each with about 2,200 students: Santa Barbara, San Marcos and Dos Pueblos. American Charter would be the fourth, catering at first to 75 — and eventually to as many as 450 — pupils.

American Charter would be tailored primarily for eighth-grade graduates of two schools with high concentrations of Latino students from poor families: Santa Barbara and La Cumbre middle schools. Noel has said he would like the charter school to be located on the Westside, near La Cumbre.

Noel said he’s not surprised by the county’s recommendation, adding that the charter group is ready to appeal to the state Board of Education. The state, he pointed out, has overturned the local-level denials of some other high-profile charter schools. Among the most noteworthy is the Oakland Military Institute, founded in 2000 by then-mayor Jerry Brown.

“It is doing a far better job with socially economically disadvantaged students and English learners than we are doing at most of our schools,” said Noel, who does not sit on the charter school’s decision-making board but still acts as an adviser.

But the American Charter proposal was criticized in the analysis put together by staff members at the County Office of Education. They deemed as “insufficient” 34 of 89 benchmarks for success. For instance, the report said the founders did an OK job of laying out their goals, but did not adequately spell out how they planned to attain them.

“General descriptions of curriculum, teaching methods, materials, and technology are inadequate to determine whether the school will accomplish the goal that students become ‘self-motivated, competent and lifelong learners,’ " it states.

Back in the spring, Noel’s four colleagues on the school board were similarly unimpressed. Some felt that the vision was unfocused and too wide-ranging.

Noel, who has long been at odds with his four colleagues on the board, said he believes the true test of the proposal is yet to come.

“We’ve long felt confident that the best chance was at the state level,” he said. “It’s just farther from the local political scene.”

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