When Joseph Andreasen joined the rural Oro Grande School District in 2006 as assistant superintendent, he was one of seven employees. The one-elementary-school district was short on students and therefore on cash, because state funding is based largely on enrollment.
Since then, however, the southern California school system, located about 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles, has exploded. The staff numbers more than 250, enrollment has skyrocketed from roughly 110 students to more than 3,700, and the budget has stabilized, with $12 million in savings and reserves to pay off debt.
To grow enrollment and steady the finances, Andreasen oversaw the creation of two in-district charter schools that offer different instructional models meant to attract and retain students.
“People are looking for a choice,” says Andreasen, who was promoted to superintendent in late 2010. “That’s really what charters are—a choice for parents and students.”
Charter Schools to Rescue
Andreasen says that his predecessor, former superintendent Kim Moore, recruited him specifically to start the charter schools because Andreasen had served previously as director of curriculum for the California Charter Academy (which has since closed) and on the board of Excelsior Education Center, a charter in nearby Victorville.
When Andreasen arrived on the job in Oro Grande, the district operated a single elementary school. Junior high and high school students traveled about five miles away to the Victor Valley Union High School District in Victorville. Though they were not far away, the schools were large, with enrollments of 1,600 and 3,500, respectively. The Oro Grande students were used to a small setting; they struggled in the Victor Valley schools and became lost in the crowd, Andreasen says. Oro Grande district leaders wanted to change that.
To expand Oro Grande to grade 12, the district, under California law, would have had to place a measure on the ballot and win voter approval—a risky venture that would have cost the cash-strapped district $20,000, according to Andreasen. Instead, Moore charged Andreasen with creating the charter schools, a move that didn’t require a public referendum.
One of the charters, Riverside Preparatory School, now caters to students in elementary through high school with a college-prep curriculum, a longer school day, project-based learning, and a no-homework policy. The other charter, Mojave River Academy, offers at-risk students—including teen moms and those who have been expelled from other districts—the option of mostly doing their work from home. The charter schools have proven so popular with parents and students that some choose to leave their neighborhood districts and take bus rides as long as 35 miles each way to Oro Grande.
“We have grown a little faster than I thought we would, but I think it shows there is a real desire from parents for something different that we seem to be providing,” Andreasen says.
Andreasen, a 30-year educator who began his career as a kindergarten teacher, took the Oro Grande job despite a gamble: If he didn’t recruit students to the new charter schools, he wouldn’t get paid (no students equals no state funding), and thus, he would lose his job. It turned out be a good bet. Mojave River opened for the 2006-2007 school year with 288 students and last year enrolled 1,300. Riverside Prep opened in the fall of 2007 with 358 students and now has more than six times that many pupils.
At the outset, Andreasen took out a full-page ad in the local newspaper touting Riverside. Today, with mostly word-of-mouth marketing, the school has a waiting list of about 600 students.
The original Oro Grande Elementary School has been folded into Riverside, with the regular students mixed into the same classes as the charter students. Oro Grande Elementary School still exists in name, however, because of the red tape it would take to officially close it. On paper, the district has three schools: Oro Grande Elementary, Riverside Preparatory (a K12 campus) and Mojave River (another K12, though most students are in high school).
“It’s been a very exciting time here in Oro Grande,” says Shawn Bell, principal of the high school part of Riverside Prep. “The charter school concept has really flourished.”
For example, a new high school building and football stadium, financed from a multimillion-dollar loan, opened last school year. The district also expanded the elementary and middle school to accommodate the growing student population.
Bell thinks students and parents are drawn to several aspects of the school, including the eight-hour day, which is enough time to keep teachers from assigning homework. “We found that in our low socio-economic families, homework was almost a penalty for kids,” Andreasen says. “They had no place to do it, no support to do it. Let’s have them in school where they can have a teacher help them.”
At all grade levels, Riverside also focuses on projects rather than on direct instruction. One of the most popular projects involves 10th-graders, who, after reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, head to a local courthouse to hold a mock trial over a few days. The students play attorneys, bailiff and judge as they put a Dr. Victor Frankenstein on trial to determine whether he is responsible for the murders committed by the monster he created.
Last year, Riverside Prep scored 817 on California’s Academic Performance Index, which is a measure of a school’s performance on the state’s standardized exams in language arts, math, science and social studies. The average school scores in the mid-600s, Andreasen says.
Mojave River offers students a completely different alternative. They have to report to campus once a week to get their assignments, but otherwise they work from home, with the option of calling their teachers on cell phones when they need help. The concept has been so popular that the district has opened 10 locations throughout Southern California. Mojave River is rated under California’s alternative school accountability system. While students have showed progress on state exams, with the school improving 70 points from 2011 to 2012, Andreasen acknowledges that further improvement is needed. Students now are encouraged to attend in-person tutorials in reading and math.
ORO GRANDE (CALIF.) SCHOOL DISTRICT
- Schools:3: Oro Grande Elementary (K6), Riverside Preparatory School (K12), Mojave River Academy (K12)
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunches:78%
- Per-pupil expenditure:$5,600
- Budget:$12 million
- Oro Grande (Calif.) School District
Andreasen expects to enroll about 100 more high school students at Riverside Prep in a couple of years, but he doesn’t want to grow much more and put students in the situation they used to face in the larger, neighboring district. “The quick expansion has been a real challenge,” Andreasen admits. “To hire new staff, to get new buildings in place, has been a challenge, but it keeps us busy.”
Ericka Mellon is an education reporter for the Houston Chronicle.