Heartwood secures charter with Sonoma school district

05/29/2019

Heartwood Educational Collaborative, the Waldorf-inspired program located in the White Hill Open Space Preserve, survived the year despite the odds. 

The program—which took the form of a non-profit and asked parents to file homeschool affidavits after losing its charter in early 2018—this month secured a new charter agreement, promising public funding for next school year. Though it once enrolled around 160 students, only 70 continue to be affiliated with the program. 

Heartwood’s leadership petitioned this spring to obtain an independent charter through the Ross Valley School District, the program’s home district, but ultimately secured a charter agreement with Liberty School District in Sonoma County. 

Heartwood has worked with Liberty before, under a different configuration: it previously held an independent-study charter under an umbrella school program called CalSTEAM—which primarily supports virtual education programs—and Liberty served as the authorizing district. 

But Liberty had a series of issues with CalSTEAM—including inaccurate attendance and interim reports, the absence of a functioning board and alleged violations of the Brown Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state education code. CalSTEAM, seeing the writing on the wall, self-revoked the charter agreement in December 2017. Heartwood was left in the lurch, cut off from state funding, midway through the school year.

This month, Liberty’s board of trustees agreed to continue as the authorizing district for Heartwood, this time without a third-party management organization. 

The “independent study” charter agreement with Liberty allows the program a fair amount of freedom. Students may be in the classroom no more than 80 percent of the time, allowing parents to play a larger role in their children’s education and students to spend time outside. 

“This is a really strong community,” said Stephanie Felton-Priestner, who took over as Heartwood’s director last year. “[Parents] have really endured a lot: if you look at the history and the challenges they have faced, how many times they have risen to meet them, you can see that we are really a community.”

Heartwood—originally called WISE Academy—was launched by families of the Lagunitas School District’s Waldorf-inspired program, which was shut down in 2014, and others from West Marin who had attempted to start an alternative to Shoreline Unified schools a few years earlier. 

Marin has just four charter schools—far fewer than neighboring counties. (Sonoma has over 50.) Kegan Stedwell, who served as the school’s director from 2015 to 2017, previously described the county as “hostile to these types of parent-led efforts.”

Ross Valley School District has one other new charter school, Ross Valley Charter School. A third-year program that obtained a charter through the state after unsuccessful attempts at an agreement with both its home district and the county met steadfast resistance from public school parents who argued that it drained public resources.

Ross Valley Charter has sued Ross Valley District twice since March 2018, hoping for more room for the program at White Hill Middle School, among other disputes. (Proposition 39 mandates “reasonably equivalent” accommodations for charter schools at public school facilities based on enrollment.)

The district proposed this spring to cut the charter’s space from eight-and-a-half to six-and-a-half classrooms for the upcoming school year based on an estimate of 116 in-district charter students, according to the Marin Independent Journal. This month, however, Ross Valley Charter administrators said they plan to move out of the middle school, having secured a lease in a less conflicted space: the former St. Rita’s school space that is being vacated by Cascade Canyon School. 

Despite this tumult, Heartwood made a bid this spring for Ross Valley District to authorize its charter. But at a board meeting held in late April, district parents voiced their disapproval.

At a Ross Valley board meeting on May 21, trustees were poised to reject Heartwood’s proposal. A staff report cited a series of reasons for rejection, including that the charter school “presents an unsound educational program” and “fails to provide a reasonably comprehensive description of all required elements of a charter petition,” and that the “petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program.” 

But no representatives from Heartwood were at that board meeting: they already had the charter agreement they were looking for. 

Ms. Felton-Priestner remained positive about future relations with Heartwood’s home district. 

“Ross Valley had a lot of findings that we wanted to address because ultimately we would like to have a locally based charter, but at this point, we can operate through the one we got with Liberty,” she said. “Our experience with Ross Valley on a whole has been a positive one: they have been very respectful and responsive. There is a lot of gray area for charters, which is a challenge for everyone, both for the people who are applying and for those who are evaluating. It’s hard for both sides, and doesn’t have an easy solution.”

This school year’s structure at Heartwood was complicated, and just two of the original seven teachers employed before they lost the charter in 2018 remain. As a nonprofit, Heartwood was able to receive donations to continue leasing space at the preserve, which it shares with a Girl Scouts camp. 

Some parents registered with the state as homeschoolers, while others signed up for different independent-study charter programs; both avenues allowed them to pool money and hire teachers. Costs have varied among parents, with some receiving state funds and others shelling out personal money, Ms. Felton-Priestner said.  

Last spring, the teacher of the combined third- and fourth-grade class at Heartwood moved to Ross Valley Charter, taking some students with her. This year, five credentialed teachers helped parents with five groups: kindergarten, first, second and third grades, and a combined fifth and sixth grade.