Heartwood shifts to homeschool program


Heartwood Educational Collaborative, the Waldorf-inspired program formerly known as WISE Academy that lost public funding in January after the organization that managed its charter ran into trouble, launched this school year as a homeschool collaborative. 

The program, located in the White Hill Open Space Preserve and spearheaded by Lagunitas School parents after that district shuttered a Waldorf program in 2014, lost around 60 students since last year, but still has a group of 100.

Heartwood’s five-member governing board formed a nonprofit in April focused on raising money so that it can provide the facility, the Henry Bothin Youth Center, to parents free of charge. Parents, who had to register their children with the state as homeschoolers, are now paying teachers directly. Lagunitas resident Greg Browman, a founding member of Heartwood who sits on the governing council, said the amount parents pay varies, but that each of the school’s five teachers is getting “a fair wage.”

In addition to the exodus of students, four teachers left last year; three teachers are new this fall (fifth and sixth grades are combined and there is no fourth grade). 

“All of this requires tremendous effort on the part of the parent volunteers because we are not receiving public funds at this time. It is truly a labor of love for their children,” Mr. Browman wrote to the Light this week. “Ultimately having public education funds to pay for teachers and administration is our goal in the future but because of the circumstances this is what is required in order to persevere with our Waldorf inspired impulse.”

Heartwood’s education emphasizes educating the whole child. Teachers do not use traditional textbooks, allowing them to adhere to a different set of principles and integrate academic subjects with music, movement, theater and crafts.

Mr. Browman said the board and parents are continuing to explore possibilities for public funding, but have not applied for a new charter.

Until January, Heartwood held an independent-study charter under an umbrella school program called CalSTEAM that primarily supports virtual education programs. The charter prevented students from being in the classroom more than 80 percent of the time; for the lower grades, Fridays were spent outdoors.

But CalSTEAM ran into difficulties with its authorizer, Liberty School District in Sonoma County, and announced it was self-revoking its charter last December. Among the unresolved issues Liberty reported were 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.

Before CalSTEAM, Heartwood operated under a different third-party organization, the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Heartwood representatives have been tentative about the possibility of applying for a charter through Fairfax’s Ross Valley School District, the program’s home district, due to local opposition to charter schools there.

Ross Valley Charter School, a second-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 the parents of public school students who argued that it drains public resources.

Ross Valley Charter has also proven to be competition for Heartwood as it figures out its next move. This spring, the teacher of the combined third- and fourth-grade class at Heartwood moved to the charter, taking some students with her.

Kegan Stedwell, who worked as the director of Heartwood from 2015 to 2017, previously told the Light that difficulty in obtaining a charter was exacerbated at the county level.

“Not one member of the Marin County Office of Education ever came to see our school in four years—and we are not a fringe institution,” she said in March. “There is a perception that [the county office] has an anti-charter stance and that they hope that parent-driven efforts like these wither and die on their own if they never step in.”

Ms. Stedwell added, “The working relationship with CalSTEAM was very, very tricky and not ideal and there was always an understanding that we would have to go for our own charter eventually.”

Heartwood is not at fault for CalSTEAM’s mistakes. But last spring, representatives from the Marin County Office of Education expressed concern that CalSTEAM had illegally allowed Heartwood to continue using public funds, even after its charter had been revoked.

Terena Mares, the office’s deputy superintendent, said this week that “the word on the street” was that CalSTEAM had continued to pay Heartwood teachers. She was also concerned that Heartwood had used its reserve funds. “As soon as they ceased to be a charter school, Heartwood could no longer access any of the funds that were generated as a public school—even private funds,” she explained.

The only acceptable explanation for this, Ms. Mares said, was if Heartwood had a separate account for private funds.

In response, Mr. Browman said Cal- STEAM had stopped giving the program funds after revoking the charter, and Heartwood had indeed used a reserve of privately donated funds. He also said there were separate accounts.

Ms. Mares added that she was under the impression that the Sonoma County Office of Education was looking into the issue, but that office said it is not.

Steve Herrington, superintendent of schools in Sonoma, told the Light in March that the office of education was investigating options to audit the Sonoma chapter of CalSTEAM. Yet a spokeswoman for the office, Jamie Hansen, clarified this week that the effort focused on verifying documentation related to average daily attendance for the entire Sonoma chapter of CalSTEAM.

“This issue has been resolved through the regular reporting process between CalSTEAM and the school district,” she said.