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Cotati-Rohnert Park district worried about charter high school's future

Published: Friday, December 7, 2012 at 6:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 7, 2012 at 6:41 p.m.

A public Waldorf-inspired charter high school has failed to meet enrollment projections and is under increasing scrutiny from Cotati-Rohnert Park School District officials who say the school has been a drain on resources.

Credo High School, located on the former Richard Crane Elementary School site on Southwest Boulevard in Rohnert Park, has about 80 students in the ninth and 10th grades.

School backers had estimated the campus would open last year with 100 students in the inaugural freshman class. Last year’s enrollment was 39 students.

The low enrollment and a behind-schedule accreditation effort has sparked concern for Cotati-Rohnert Park officials and led to a special school board meeting Thursday night to address the issue. Cotati-Rohnert Park provides administrative and budgetary oversight for the independent charter school in return for 1 percent of Credo’s state daily attendance income.

“We want to make sure the students and parents enrolled in the school know that what was called for in the charter, it didn’t take place, and here are the consequences and risks,” said Cotati-Rohnert Park Superintendent Rob Haley. “If you choose to keep your student enrolled, that is your choice. That is OK with us. What we don’t want is the parent body not to have that information and then later say the district didn’t do its oversight.”

Credo backers acknowledge that initial enrollment projections were ambitious and that the school struggled last year with its finances, but said the students are thriving and posting top test scores which will become a draw for other families.

“I think we were looking through rose-colored glasses three years ago. I think we were taken by surprise a little bit,” said Steve Bossio, the treasurer of the school’s board of directors and father of a sophomore. “We had a difficult year last year. This year we are much better off.”

Credo posted a 822 on the state Academic Performance Index, well above the goal of 800 out 1,000.

“It would be one thing if we weren’t performing,” Bossio said. “Yes, we have some financial challenges and yes we probably pushed the envelope pretty far last year, but (Credo is) going to be a feather in the cap for this district and the county. You have to see the big picture.”

The current school spending plan is $760,000 while revenues are expected to hit $775,000, Bossio said. The school was given a three-year $375,000 charter school start-up grant from the state, and last year the school took out a five-year state loan for $250,000.

But Credo currently has no reserve and has struggled to pay the $2,500 monthly rent for use of the Richard Crane facility on time, Haley said.

The district has also lost state revenue because 34 Cotati-Rohnert Park students have enrolled at Credo — an independent school for which the chartering district only gets minimal financial credit via enrollment numbers.

“The reality is a Catch-22: The better we are, the more attractive we are to students who might (otherwise) choose the Ranch,” said Credo’s director Chip Romer, referring to Rancho Cotate High, Cotati-Rohnert Park’s only comprehensive high school.

“The district sees that, for them, as a significant loss of money,” he said.

Romer acknowledged that Credo is costing the district more in oversight and related expenses than what the school is contributing in attendance-related revenue.

“We had enrollment projections that seem really rosy from this point of view but they didn’t seem rosy when we were making them,” he said.

Haley said Sonoma County’s third largest school district is merely doing what is required by law of a chartering school district.

Ongoing money woes will affect the school’s effort to earn accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Haley said. WASC accreditation makes transferring credits between schools smoother while affording students a more straightforward path in college applications.

Romer said the lack of accreditation has become a “point of contention” with the school district and that the school is pursuing the designation.

“The soonest you can do that is the second semester of your first year. That was our original plan, but our finances were so tenuous last spring,” he said.

“If you come from a non-accredited high school, you can still get to to the U.C. system but you go through a different portal,” he said.

Bossio said that as a parent he is not worried about the accreditation delay.

“I’m personally not. Accreditation is not required to get into college,” he said. “I’m also confident it will happen.”

Both Romer and Bossio said they expect enrollment to take off in years three or four, when anxious parents realize the school has a solid foundation.

“I think we are going to grow to 600-plus students,” Bossio said.

The North Bay is considered a hotbed of Waldorf enthusiasts who promote a low-technology approach to education that focuses on the arts and individualized curriculum in the early grades. Once in high school, backers said, Waldorf focuses on investigative projects as well as an emphasis on music, foreign language and throwback skills such as black-and-white print-making and blacksmithing.

As a public “Waldorf-inspired” charter school, the curriculum follows Waldorf philosophy but remains public.

There are seven Waldorf-inspired “feeder schools” in the North Bay that graduate about 160 eighth graders every year.

The issue is expected to be a topic of discussion at the school board’s January meeting.

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