Ophir School to go charter?

New science, technology, engineering and math program approved
By: Laura O'Brien, Loomis News Correspondent
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Students at Ophir Elementary School in Newcastle will see some changes next year.

A petition to convert Ophir to a charter school did not reach a vote at the Loomis Union School District board meeting at H. Clarke Powers Elementary School on April 10. But in a second agenda item relating to low enrollment at the school, the board approved an additional half-time teacher to facilitate a switch to subject-based instruction in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

At least 50 percent of Ophir teachers would need to sign a viable petition for charter conversion, said Gordon Medd, school district superintendent.

“Unless the teachers support it, the board won’t take any action,” Medd said.

The school will move forward with a proposed new science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program—without a charter designation—unless a majority of teachers sign the charter petition before the May 2 board meeting, he said.

Trustee Mike Edwards cautioned the many Ophir teachers and parents in the audience against ruling out a possible charter conversion.

“Let’s be careful that we don’t take such incremental steps,” Edwards said. “Let’s seize this opportunity if there is one.” 

Ophir’s enrollment declined from 216 in 2009 to 172 at the start of the 2012-2013 school year. The student-teacher ratio is 20 to 1, whereas the ratio at other district schools is 26 to 1. 

In a March 4 meeting at Ophir, district staff told parents that a charter/STEM combination was the best chance for attracting new students from outside the school’s rural community. Each student represents $5,000 to $6,000 in revenue per year. 

Ophir currently operates at a $1,000 shortfall per student, according to a presentation at the board meeting April 10. The district supplemented the school with $189,000 this year.

“Our goal is to grow Ophir School,” Medd said. “We can’t go back and do what we were doing.”

Established in 1856, Ophir joined the Loomis Union School District in 2008. The school’s enrollment includes 20 children in the Placer County deaf and hard of hearing program.

First-grade teacher Tracey Curry said she and her colleagues were not yet ready to take the charter plunge.

“I’m hoping that I will make an educated versus an emotional decision,” Curry said. “I’m actually just asking for more time.”

If the school converts to a charter, a future petition for modification of the charter could pose a risk to teachers, said Tim Ahrens, president of the Loomis Teachers Association.

Kevin McAllister, a school parent, said a charter designation would draw needed students to the school.

“The charter does get people in the door and then you can grab them, show them what we have,” McAllister said. “I don’t think that waiting for the sake of waiting is going to help anybody out.”

Enrollment for next year’s eighth grade stands at nine children, but the sixth and seventh grade classes are more robust.

While the board sanctioned parents’ requests to keep the eighth -graders at Ophir, rather than sending them to other district schools, their approval of subject-based instruction for the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders and the additional half-time teacher was contingent on a teacher presentation of an implementation plan for the new program at the May 2 board meeting. Teachers also must present their STEM program to the board on May 2. 

Teachers have proposed adding an art and architecture component to STEM, said Ophir Principal Mary Zaun. Ophir will hold a STEM interest night at the school featuring robotics, games and experiments on April 25 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.