Plans to replicate the charter school's successful education model has been in the works for more than a year, but top school officials have deliberately avoided talking about them publicly, said John Phelps, chair of Bullis Charter School's board of directors. The reticence to make a big announcement is not to say that the school is trying to hide the plans, he said, but more of an acknowledgment that it's only at the start of a very long process.
"We do certainly see a lot of demand and strong interest, but we also need to do this in a very methodical way," Phelps said. "We're not in a position to talk about specific (school) locations at this point at all, unfortunately."
The effort is entirely separate from the Los Altos School District's plans to acquire land for a tenth campus in the San Antonio Shopping Center area of Mountain View. It's not yet known if the district will opt to make it the new site for Bullis Charter School, which is housed in portables on two other LASD campuses. Phelps stressed that the idea of opening a school for lower-income students has nothing to do with the tenth site plans or the ongoing debate on a permanent campus for Bullis.
The school has a 19-person team exploring what it would take to open a new school that replicates the education model used at Bullis Charter School, which puts an emphasis on individualized learning and what it calls "focused learning goals," closely tracking performance as well as aspirational goals set by the children themselves. The group has since created a short list of possible locations for the school, governance models and strategies for financing the school.
Huge wait lists
The demand for a new satellite campus created in the mold of Bullis Charter School is certainly there, Phelps said. During the lottery held in February each year, the school typically receives 10 applicants for every one kindergarten space, which is partly due to the school's 900-student enrollment cap set by the Los Altos School District in the so-called five-year agreement. The terms of the agreement are currently under negotiation behind closed doors and may be revised.
Grace Yang, a parent whose children recently graduated from Bullis, is one of the longtime leaders of the team seeking to extend the charter school's reach to more students. She said opening a new campus has been in the works for several years, and that it now represents a "near-term" plan of action. Recently, she said the goal was revised to include the "many opportunities" to open a school in San Mateo County as well, and that the search for a school site isn't constrained by Santa Clara County boundaries.
The long line of families applying to get into kindergarten at Bullis frequently reaches 1,000 students, Yang said, which means that the education programs at the charter school are clearly resonating with a community extending beyond Los Altos School District. Prospective students from outside of LASD's attendance boundaries are allowed to apply, according to Bullis' charter renewal. It's incumbent on the school, Yang said, to explore ways to share what's worked at Bullis with more people.
"If you look at the wait list numbers for BCS, clearly many, many community members, including those in surrounding districts, are interested in what it has to offer," she said. "It's kind of our responsibility to make that available to anyone who wants it."
Concern over lack of low-income students
During the lengthy charter renewal process that Bullis went through in 2016 with the county, it was abundantly clear throughout the 1,063-page petition that staff from the Santa Clara County Office of Education were concerned about the charter school's "continued challenge" in enrolling lower-income students. The county's charter school staff cited data from 2015 showing that only 1 percent of students in the school have household incomes that qualifies them for free and reduced-price meals, compared to 5 percent throughout the school district. The low number was flagged as a "concern," and staff requested that the district find ways to enroll a more equitable number of low-income families.
The report says that plans for a school serving low-income students would not fix the problem, and that the charter school should consider more immediate measures to solve the imbalance.
"BCS's strategic plan of opening a new school to remedy this issue, while admirable, does not provide remedy to their current lack of a reflective student population at their site," according to the county report.
Though the figures have been hotly contested in the past — Yang and Phelps both told the Voice that the student demographics are reflective of the population that Bullis serves — Bullis Superintendent Wanny Hersey acknowledged during a May 2016 charter renewal hearing that it has been a struggle.
"We are trying a lot of different things, (but) that is the one group that is very difficult, that we haven't been able to crack," she said.
County school board members Rosemary Kamei and Darcie Green suggested that Bullis could modify its admissions preferences so students from lower-income backgrounds would get higher preference during the lottery process, making it easier to balance out the student demographics. Phelps said that Bullis Charter School's board of directors had not explored the idea at that point.
In recent years, the school has launched multiple initiatives aimed at helping lower-income and minority families, including those living outside of the Los Altos district's boundaries. Six years ago, Bullis parents launched the Bullis Boosters Camp, an all-expenses-paid summer bridge program that serves close to 50 disadvantaged youth in the Mountain View and Los Altos areas.
The school also created a Stretch to Kindergarten program for incoming kindergarteners who did not attend preschool, and may be missing key socio-emotional, language and math skills needed to keep up with their peers. The vast majority of the 16 enrollees each year are low-income Latino students. Although the program is sponsored by Bullis, children enrolled in it are not given any priority for admission into Bullis.
Yang said it's a given that a new charter school campus serving primarily low-income students would need to be modified to better suit the needs of the students, given the different demographics. But the core elements of the education programs at Bullis — hands-on learning projects, closely monitored learning goals and extended-day programs — would all carry over to the new school.
Financing for the prospective charter school is also expected to vary significantly from Bullis, which relies on private contributions from the school's nonprofit community foundation. Multi-year projections show that more than a third of Bullis' annual budget — $4 million — comes directly from parents of students and community members, fueled largely by families who are encouraged to donate $5,000 per student each year.
Phelps said the 19-member team is still researching how the finances would shake out, but said there are many school districts that rely on per-pupil funding and would be better positioned than Los Altos School District to fund a school with mostly lower-income students. There are also plenty of state, federal and private grants for the kind of charter school that Bullis is seeking to open, he said.
"We are very excited about this, and we're doing our homework to ensure we do this in the best possible way," Phelps said.
This story contains 1318 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.