After 20 years of teaching history at Santiago Middle School, Suzanne Bell-Dragoon dreams of early morning classes on Civil War-era dances to complement her lessons on that period.
English Department chairwoman Cathie Hunsberger imagines an hourly payroll of college students to help grade papers. Robyn Tunstall, who coordinates Santiago's program for gifted and talented students, wants teachers from all subjects to synchronize their curricula.
All three are desperate to shrink classes, which ballooned as high as 42 students in one class last year. And they'd love it if the air conditioner were fixed when it breaks--not weeks later.
The difference between this wish list and the one every educator keeps is that Santiago's staff plans to make these and other innovations reality by seceding from the troubled Orange Unified School District and functioning autonomously as Orange County's first "charter school."
Orange Unified trustees said they will approve Santiago's petition for independence at a meeting this week, making it a self-governing school in control of its own budget and free from district and state mandates. Santiago would become the first charter school in the county, joining 62 others around the state that have decided to fly solo since the charter school concept was approved by the Legislature two years ago.
"It's very exciting because it's like you're controlling your own destiny," said Tunstall, who led the charge for a charter at Santiago. "It's the sort of rhetoric that you've read a million times, but we honestly believe it."
Added Hunsberger: "The education system is in upheaval. Change is inevitable. We're better off taking it by the horns than being told later on that this is what you have to do."
Most of the previously approved charters are for elementary schools scattered throughout 23 of California's counties. About 25 charter schools have been up and running for a year. Thirty more are scheduled to open this fall.
Santiago plans to begin operation as a charter school in September, 1995.
Some schools adopted charters in order to specialize in the arts, technology, science or vocational training, while others focused on saving would-be dropouts. A handful are networks of parents receiving money from the state to teach their children at home.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, Westwood Elementary uses its charter to group students in multi-age, multi-grade "families" rather than traditional classes. A consortium of Palisades charter schools provides a cohesive humanities curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade and requires students to perform community service. And a Pacoima charter school slashed class sizes from an average of 32 to 26, added a computer lab and ended up with a budget surplus during its first year of operation.
"Some pretty amazing schools have come forward," said Sue Burr, the state Senate Education Committee staffer who authored the charter legislation. "We got the question a lot: 'What's your idea of what a charter school should be?' We don't have an idea."
Burr's boss, state Sen. Gary Hart (D-Santa Barbara), says "charter is a license to dream."
At Santiago, the dream is to increase parent involvement, allow more flexibility for progressive teaching methods and decrease class size.
"When I empower my staff to be in charge of their domain--even if it's just a little, itty-bitty domain--they work harder, they work smarter," Santiago Principal Mary Ann Owsley explained.
"If you give people the ability to soar with the eagles, they do, because they don't work for somebody else anymore, they work for themselves," said Owsley, who began her career in Orange Unified a quarter-century ago as a Spanish teacher, and has since been a counselor, assistant principal and principal at various schools. "If that's true on a smaller class-by-class basis, why can't it be true on a schoolwide basis?"
According to Santiago's petition to the school board, the charter school would emphasize cultural diversity and communication skills, with classes coordinated to address similar themes across subject matter. Students and parents would have to sign contracts to attend, with parents required to donate time or money to the school.
There would be a strict dress code and harsher discipline. Under Owsley's leadership, an appointed 13-member board of parents and staff, meeting monthly, would run the school.
The arrangement is designed to give parents, teachers, the school's administrators and other staffers, who will be selected by their peers at the school, more clout in important decisions that affect students. The charter board's governing autonomy would be so complete that the seven-member Orange Unified school board would have neither authority nor responsibility for the school.
"The main thrust is to make it a partnership between the parents, the students, the teachers and the community--to get more people involved in education," said Marvella McAllister, one of several parents who helped write the charter.
One key element in the charter is the introduction of a two-tiered teaching staff.
"Master teachers" would be credentialed educators, while lower-paid "instructors"--who must have some college education but need not be trained as teachers--would help ease the workload and save money.
The charter plan's originators say "instructors" may include a retired engineer who assists with math, a museum curator helping with art history, or a concert guitarist teaching music.
Other tentative plans for saving money include:
* Aggressively fighting truancy, because state funding is tied to daily student attendance.
* Changing cafeteria services to make a bigger profit on food sales without necessarily raising prices for students.
* Seeking local companies to donate services such as maintenance and gardening.
Owsley also believes that teachers will try harder to save money--perhaps by or taking fewer days off--if they believe they will reap the benefits directly in terms of smaller class sizes or increased resources.
Santiago, a school of 877 students and 34 teachers that scores well on standardized tests and has been named a California "distinguished school" twice in the past five years, already has leaped to the forefront of reform efforts in the Orange Unified district.
Becoming a charter school, staff members believe, will free the school from the educational bureaucracy to experiment even more. They can try a new textbook, change the class schedule--or the cafeteria schedule--without filing stacks of state-required forms or having a string of meetings.
"We just want the reins, the official reins," Bell-Dragoon pointed out.
Charter schools must maintain a racial and ethnic balance similar to the populations in their attendance areas. They must be non-sectarian and cannot discriminate in enrollment. Beyond that, they are free from California's 6,000-page, 11-volume Education Code, and from district governance.
Once approved, the charter is good for five years before it must be renewed. The only requirement is that the school set specific achievement standards and show results.
It is hardly a surprise that Orange County's first charter school comes in Orange Unified, a district of 26,000 students whose central office has long been in turmoil. Seven superintendents have headed the district since 1989.
Charter planners said getting away from the district's woes was not a primary motivation, but admitted that administrative headaches "downtown" have made it difficult to get top officials to focus on education reform.
Although unions and school boards have typically opposed charters, Santiago has gained near-universal support, teachers and administrators said. That is in part because Santiago's charter would allow teachers to maintain their union memberships and seniority, and the school would continue contracting with Orange Unified for many services.
To receive a charter, 50% of a school's teachers--or 10% of those in an entire district--must approve. At Santiago, 32 of the 34 teachers have supported the petition.
Marilyn Moore, a veteran teacher who opposes the charter, declined to comment, and Sandy Reece Collier, the other teacher against the move, could not be reached last week.
School board members said they anticipate easy passage of the charter petition at their meeting Thursday.
"I'm quite committed to any effort to decentralize the operations of our district in order to provide a greater amount of authority closer to the students in the classroom," Trustee Robert Viviano said. "There is a need in the school system in general to return more control and more responsiveness to the local schools."
Bill Lewis, another school board member, expressed concern that a small group of teachers or parents might take over the school, or that the district would be held responsible for problems at Santiago but have no recourse to address them. Still, he said he plans to support the charter petition.
Many believe the charter will allow Santiago to serve as an experiment for Orange Unified and the county. Innovative teaching and funding mechanisms that work at Santiago might be adopted by other schools.
"It's like having an R&D; unit, research and development, right in your own back yard," Trustee James Fearns said.
Tunstall, Owsley and other key figures in the charter movement say the most crucial challenges still lie ahead. They must chart a specific course for the school over the coming year. Once it is transformed into a charter school, everyone expects the workload to increase.
"Even though we had close to 100% of the staff say 'yes, we're interested in this,' when you get down to the nuts and bolts of asking people to change, it's scary," Hunsberger admitted. "Unfortunately, teachers have been trained to follow the rules and have never been given the opportunity to be innovative, and now it's thrown into your lap.
"It's kind of like being a first-time parent and the baby is thrown into your lap," she added. "It's exciting, but it's intimidating."
Looking for Autonomy
Santiago Middle School is hoping to become a self-governing school by seceding from the Orange Unified School District and adopting its own "charter" under a program approved by the Legislature two years ago.
Pointer: Santiago Middle School
* Grades: 7-8
* Opened: 1973
* Merged with McPhearson Junior High: 1989
* Number of students (1993-94): 877
* Number of teachers: 34
* Total staff: 60
* Feeder elementary schools: Chapman Hills, Esplanade, Jordan, La Veta, Linda Vista, Panorama, Prospect, Silverado
* Feeds to: El Modena High School
* Percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch program: 25%
* Percentage of students who have limited proficiency in English: 15.9%
Racial, ethnic breakdown White: 52.0% Latino: 35.3% Other Asian: 9.7% Pacific Islander: 0.5% Filipino: 1.3% Black: 1.3%
Numbers do not add to 100% because of rounding
Researched by JODI WILGOREN / Los Angeles Times