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Disputed charter school ready to open in Newport-Mesa district

The new International School for Science and Culture
The new International School for Science and Culture will occupy classrooms inside the Harper Assessment Center in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

With less than a week until the first day of classes, summer has about come and gone for students in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

The same is true for students who will be attending the International School for Science and Culture, a public charter school that also will open Tuesday and operate on Newport-Mesa’s Harper Assessment Center site in Costa Mesa after getting approval for a charter facilities agreement from the district board of trustees in June.

On Wednesday morning, the small, newly minted campus at Tustin Avenue and East 18th Street bustled as teachers sat in on professional development sessions and office staff chatted with families. Just outside, operations and maintenance staff quietly unloaded furniture from trucks and into classrooms.

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Rene Williams is the principal for the new International School for Science and Culture.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

School administrators said ISSAC expects a student body of 110, with the majority hailing from the Newport-Mesa area. Out-of-district students largely come from Santa Ana and Irvine. Staff members said the facility currently stands to hold about 350 students.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District trustees unanimously denied a petition Thursday from a charter school seeking permission to operate within district boundaries.

“I think it takes a little bit of time for families to learn about the richness of the program and also to have that firm understanding that this is solid and trustworthy and we are up to that challenge,” Renee Williams, the school’s founding principal, said of this year’s enrollment. “I am 100% confident that we will deliver exactly what we are promising.”

The charter is enrolling only in transitional kindergarten through fifth grade for the first year but hopes to expand to eighth grade.

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It’s been a long road to ISSAC’s opening — one riddled with a hotly contested review process that ended with its approval by the Orange County Board of Education in March.

Against community pushback and staff recommendations to deny both applications, the Orange County Board of Education voted Wednesday to approve proposals for two charter schools to operate within local school districts.

ISSAC appealed Newport-Mesa’s initial rejection of its charter petition in November before the county gave its OK. The district had voiced concerns about the charter school’s curriculum and staff qualifications.

ISSAC describes itself as a STREAM — science, technology, reading and writing, engineering, arts and math — school that will have a foreign-language program that teaches students Spanish and Mandarin Chinese in addition to English.

Williams said she isn’t personally engaged in any of the contention surrounding the school and is focused instead on its participation in the Newport-Mesa community.

“I am more concerned with ... contributing to the overall assets. In that way, I see [ISSAC] as part of the village. Even if we’re not part of the district, we’re part of the village and the kids belong to all of us. The families belong to all of us, and so we will do our part to contribute in that way,” Williams said.

New concerns have since been raised about the charter school.

At a county Board of Education meeting July 17, Charlene Metoyer, president of the Newport-Mesa board, raised questions about transparency in communications and the involvement of Padmini Hands, who was in communication with the county on behalf of ISSAC after the departure of Patricia Gould, who was the lead petitioner and previously in line to be the school’s founding principal.

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A previous resolution by the district said ISSAC’s proposal appeared to be a “repackaging” of a separate charter petition for a school called Adrian Hands Academy that was repeatedly denied by the Saddleback Valley Unified School District. Padmini Hands is credited as the founder of Adrian Hands in addition to ISSAC.

“We were assured many, many times that this was not a conversion — she’s not involved, this is a completely autonomous functioning entity,” county trustee Ken Williams — no relation to Renee Williams — said in July. “We voted upon that, and that was the basis. It concerns me because the optics don’t look good.

“I don’t think there’s a problem with her volunteering, but anywhere near the management and the day-to-day activities, even answering phones could be problematic.”

Requests for additional comment from Newport-Mesa were referred to the county Board of Education. Fermin Leal, a spokesman for the county, said it had nothing to add at this point.

The new International School for Science and Culture
The new International School for Science and Culture will occupy classrooms inside the Harper Assessment Center in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Renee Williams, a Los Angeles native, said she brings more than 25 years of educational experience and has worked in both charter and traditional public schools.

ISSAC is “absolutely a special place,” she said.

“In my experience, I’ve never been a part of such a unique setting in which the academics are on par with the cultural, empathy, social and emotional learning impact that we’re going to have with students,” she said. “This is really, for me, the perfect balance or destination place between where academic depth meets support of the students’ whole well-being.”

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Williams said the school has a total teaching staff of 10 and that eight will be teaching in classrooms next week.

She said she looks forward to getting to know the students at ISSAC and to “creating engagement between our staff, our students, their parents and the community in order to make a connection with the common mission of building global citizens.”

“I personally find this mission incredibly important, not only for our students but for all of us as humankind to connect with,” she added.

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