Bullis Charter School boasts higher test scores than any other charter school in California, its waiting list is lengthy and its K-8 programming is expanding at a rapid clip. Yet, according to some community members, the school's successes only serve to mask the fact that it is run like a private school in a public school uniform.
A recent public meeting of the Santa Clara County Board of Education -- held Oct. 5 to determine whether Bullis' charter ought to be renewed for another 5 years -- served as a venue for a heated debate between supporters of the school and others who say that the school is discriminatory in its recruiting process and overly aggressive in its fundraising practices.
The county board renewed the school's charter in a split vote, 5-2. The decision was celebrated by members of the Bullis board of directors and lamented by the charter school's more vocal opponents.
"We're very pleased at the renewal," Bullis board member Anne Marie Gallagher said. "We are looking forward to five more great years."
Critics, including Los Altos School District board member Tammy Logan and Santa Clara County Board of Education member Anna Song (who voted against the charter renewal), have accused the school of pulling the majority of its students from the wealthy neighborhoods of Los Altos Hills, while neglecting poorer neighborhoods in Los Altos and Mountain View.
"I had hoped that they would do something a little more forceful to ensure that Bullis Charter School fairly takes every child from the district," Logan said.
The Los Altos School District encompasses part or all of the three cities, and Bullis -- which is built on school district land and draws its student population from within the district's boundaries -- should reflect the community it serves, Logan and Song have said.
John Phelps, who serves along with Gallagher on the Bullis board, said that his school is representative of the community it serves. Pointing to 2010 Census data and comparing that to the makeup of Bullis' student body, Phelps said the school enrolled a greater percentage of black, Asian and mixed-race children than live in within the district. He admitted that the school enrolled Hispanic students at a lower rate than what was recorded within the district by the 2010 Census, but he noted Bullis only missed that mark by less than half a percent.
Phelps said that the school does not keep data on the poor students it enrolls in the same way regular public schools do, but he said that up to 2 percent of the children at Bullis receive free lunches from the school.
SOURCE OF CONTROVERSY
"It's sort of mystifying -- all the energy surrounding this renewal," Gallagher said of the recent criticism of the school.
Phelps agreed: "There have been some unfair assumptions made," he said -- namely that Bullis is only for the privileged and wealthy.
Gallagher and Phelps both postulate that the amount of fervor surrounding the school's charter renewal process may be related to the demand for the school. About one-third of parents of kindergarteners in the district enter the school's enrollment lottery, but only one out of every six Bullis applicants get in.
Demand is high because their school offers a kind of education that children won't get at other schools in the district, Phelps and Gallagher said. Art, performance, music and robotics classes are offered at Bullis and incorporate curriculum from other areas of study, like science, math, history and language.
One example of interweaving lesson plans Gallagher pointed to was the collaboration between art and physical education: as the children learn about all the major muscle groups from their gym teacher, they are simultaneously building a model of their musculature in their art class, using modeling clay that they lay over an armature of a human skeleton.
Speaking with Phelps and Gallagher, one thing is abundantly clear: these two are extremely passionate about Bullis, a school they have worked hard to mold into a model for other schools, locally and around the country.
"This is the future," Phelps said out in front of Bullis, looking with pride at the campus.
"What we're trying to do is to provide a 21st century education for the kids," Gallagher said. "We want the children to figure out why education is meaningful to them."
Gallagher said she is upset by the accusations that Bullis is a school for children born with silver spoons. "In this day and age aren't we beyond stereotypes?" she asks. "Can't we just deal with the person in front of us, instead of calling them a certain type of person?"
Logan's critiques of the school remain. She said that Bullis does not do enough to draw the Hispanic community and students from Mountain View -- who make up 25 percent of the Los Altos School District -- into the school. Gallagher estimates that only about one-fifth of Bullis students live in Mountain View.
At the same time she said, the school's high "recommended" donations -- $5,000 for the current school year -- serve as a deterrent for poorer families.
"There have been numerous parents that have told me that it is very well understood that you should not think about going there unless you are prepared to donate the full amount per child," Logan said.
It is a charge that Phelps denies. "It's a public school," he said. "There is no tuition. Anyone that wants to come and has their name pulled in the lottery may come."
In the end, Phelps and Gallagher said that while they disagree with many of the criticisms, they are trying to take them in stride. "The charter renewal process does give us the opportunity to hear feedback," Gallagher said. "We are held up to the highest level of public scrutiny. We welcome the criticism. It gives us the opportunity to improve."
A previous version of this story, and the print version, stated that the county board voted 3-2 in favor of renewing Bullis' charter. The vote was, in fact, 5-2.