A rift over a charter school

Times Staff Writer

Public schools on the Palos Verdes Peninsula are among the state's highest achieving, and two of the wealthy enclave's high schools are ranked in the nation's top 100.

But to a small band of parents, that's not enough.

"In public school districts, even as good as Palos Verdes, test results are hugely important and people are inordinately concerned with the results of various tests," said Michael Schwerdtfeger, father of three Palos Verdes students and the lead petitioner to create the first publicly funded charter school within the district.

In the area's schools, he said, "the curriculum is geared to doing well on the test, not necessarily to giving children the opportunity to learn to love to learn."

The efforts of Schwerdtfeger and his allies to create an alternative have agitated the peninsula, with opponents charging that pulling students -- and the state money that pays for their education -- out of district schools and into an independent charter school would drain resources from high-functioning schools and harm the students who attend them.

"This should not be done at the expense of or at detriment to every other child in our school district," said Lynne Starr, librarian at Ridgecrest Intermediate School and a former PTA president.

The debate over the proposed Theory into Practice (TIP) Academy is the most bitter fight in the 12,000-student Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District since the early 1990s, when declining enrollment forced the district to close several schools.

A meeting held last Tuesday to discuss the proposal had to be moved from district headquarters to a high school gymnasium to accommodate the 500 parents, teachers and others who turned out. A majority wore black to symbolize their opposition to the proposal. Public comment, which typically lasts 15 minutes at board meetings, lasted for three hours.

"This charter school proposal has deeply divided our community," said Kelly Young, an emergency room physician and mother of three children.

Some critics have accused charter supporters of simply wanting a private-school setting without hefty tuition bills.

"This is a small group of parents who want to have complete control over the curriculum and daily activities of a school, but they'd like the rest of us to pay for it," said Tracey Lyons Tozier, whose dyslexic daughter and autistic son attend Mira Catalina Elementary.

But Schwerdtfeger said the effort was about creating an alternative to schools too focused on rigid drilling.

"These experiences might teach children facts and methods on how to take tests, but not the types of lessons that teach children how to be critical thinkers, how to be creative thinkers, things that are required to be successful in the 21st century," he said.

The school proposed by Schwerdtfeger and others would be modeled on the TIP Academy, a charter school in Encinitas.

Although students still take standardized tests and study a curriculum that is aligned with state standards, TIP uses "differentiated instruction," which recognizes that different children learn best in different ways, and values interdisciplinary and real-world studies, according to a petition the parents submitted to the district in February.

Trustees will vote on whether to grant the charter on April 21.

If the school is approved, its supporters would try to enroll 220 students in grades K through eight for the 2008-09 school year. The children of the founding families would be guaranteed admission, but other slots would be granted by lottery if too many students apply.

Last week's meeting aroused passions on both sides.

When Lyons Tozier and her husband were planning to leave New Jersey and move to California last year, she said they specifically moved to the peninsula because of its schools.

"What we have right now is pretty terrific," she told trustees Tuesday. "I would not have settled for anything less than a proven track record of excellence. . . . The proposed TIP Academy could be the fix that could break our high-performing school district."

Palos Verdes schools receive about $5,800 per child annually. If the charter is approved and meets its 220-student enrollment target, nearly $1.3 million would follow students out of district schools and into TIP, and the hit would come at a time when state education spending is declining. Under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the district expects to lose $3.7 million, and has already issued tentative layoff notices to nearly 60 teachers, Supt. Walker Williams said.

Charter supporters say financial worries are overstated, because an anticipated one-third of the student body would come from outside the district.

Petitioning families note that the state's education code specifically allows the creation of charter schools, and that they are merely exercising their right to seek out an education better suited to their children.

Lisa Rehrig has four children -- one each in fifth and third grades, kindergarten and preschool. Traditional school has not been a good fit for her older children, she said.

"My kids are a little bit different, a little bit weird," she said at the meeting Tuesday. "They learn differently, not by reading a textbook, filling out a work sheet, reading another textbook, filling out another work sheet. . . . They sit around and read a biography of Julius Caesar for fun on the weekend. They're not nerds, they're happy."

Trustees are limited by the education code as to which factors they can consider when granting or denying the charter. The effect on district finances can't be considered, nor can community opposition.

So critics are focusing much of their effort on the founder of TIP Education Inc., a nonprofit company that the proposed charter school plans to contract with for hundreds of thousands of dollars of curriculum and other assistance.

Anti-charter parents said Michael Hazelton, chief operating officer of the Encinitas TIP school, has been involved with prior charter schools that ran into financial problems or other troubles.

Relations between the Hazeltons -- his wife, Deborah Hazelton, is the principal at Encinitas -- and some founding families in Encinitas have grown strained, with at least one former board member filing a complaint with the state Department of Education. Additionally, an independent audit of another charter that Hazelton helped found, Cortez Hill Academy in San Diego, found that he gave himself an $18,350 raise without board approval.

Several phone calls to Michael Hazelton seeking comment were not returned.

Schwerdtfeger said Hazelton would not receive money from the Palos Verdes charter, which would be wholly independent from TIP Encinitas. Charter supporters cite the waiting list of students to enroll in the Encinitas campus as a sign of its success, but critics say that its standardized test scores are middling among Encinitas schools.

As supporters and opponents bicker about the charter's value, the debate has grown increasingly acrimonious in this tight-knit, wealthy community.

Nasty comments have been posted on community websites, and there are reports of children being ostracized because of their parents' position on the proposed school. All of which led one of the founding families to issue a plea for civility at the crowded board meeting.

"It's OK to disagree, it's great to disagree, it's American," Jason Sarner said. "It's not OK to slander and defame your neighbor's character. Neighbors, let's disagree, let's debate, but let's be nice to each other."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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