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Home-Schoolers Chartered

Education: With its program approved by the Ojai Unified district, the alternative- teaching community just needs a campus.


Ojai's newest public school will have fewer than 60 children, from 4 to 15 years old.

Some will attend class only three hours each week.

And best of all, say prospective students, there will be no homework.

Valley Oak Charter School will open in September as a campus for parents who home-school their children. This week, Ojai Unified School District trustees unanimously approved the proposal, making Valley Oak the first charter school in the Ojai Valley and the third in Ventura County.

Organizers now are scrambling to find a school site, hire a director and prepare a curriculum for the 45 students who have signed up so far.

"I'm so thrilled--and relieved," Martha Fellows, an Ojai parent who has led the Valley Oak effort, said after the school board's vote Tuesday night. "We have a lot of work to do."

Fellows and her husband, Ojai teacher John Shifflette, applied for charter-school status after two years of operating a district-funded home-schooling program for about two dozen students out of a classroom at San Antonio Elementary School.

Valley Oak proponents are among a growing number of parents in California who are teaching their children at home not for religious or political reasons, but for academic ones.

"My daughter had problems reading in first grade, so I took her out and started teaching her at home," said Brenda Barron, a member of the charter school's organizing committee. "The public school approach didn't work. She's a fantastic reader now."

The Ojai home-schooling program embraces the philosophy that children are learning all the time, and that they learn better when they have a choice in deciding what subjects to study, Shifflette said.

His job is to align what parents are teaching with the California education standards--a set of lessons in various subjects that all public school students are expected to master by a certain grade level. Teachers also provide supplemental instruction for home-schooled children and supervise during the students' weekly meetings. Shifflette, for example, taught a Spanish class last year.

"Instead of taking a curriculum and doing the things the adults are planning out for them, it's a more child-centered approach," Shifflette said. Instead of six hours a day, with breaks for lunch and recess, learning is going on all the time. For example, a trip to the zoo is a biology lesson, while cooking dinner includes math.

Parents who will run the charter school are partnering with the Ojai school district, which will receive about 22% of the school's state funding to handle accounting, payroll, attendance and other administrative support duties. Valley Oak students also will have access to any class or activity at any school in the district, with the exception of California Interscholastic Federation sports.

Charter schools are subject to the state's testing and accountability program, but Fellows said she expects many parents at Valley Oak will opt out of the standardized testing, which is their right. It may affect funding, she said, but "we'll have to deal with it."

The school's annual budget will be determined by how many students enroll.

At 40 students, the budget would be about $200,000, Fellows said, minus the $44,000, or 22%, that would go to the district. State law requires that half of the balance go to paying salaries of credentialed teachers, leaving the school about $78,000 for overhead, special programs and materials.

Still, that is much more revenue than the program ever received as part of the district, Fellows said. A desire for such financial independence, allowing more flexibility in spending, is what initially drove the charter school movement.

"Now the largest part of the funding will be coming directly to the classroom," Shifflette said.

One piece that has yet to fall into place is a location.

Organizers are looking at the old Oak View School on Mahoney Avenue, which homeowners and activists in Oak View are trying to buy from the Ventura Unified School District for $1.1 million. If a proposed $49-a-year parcel tax passes by July 23 with more than 50% of the vote, the county will contribute $400,000 in matching funds to purchase and redo the exterior of the school, said Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett.

Community members want to save the school to prevent the property from being sold off to a developer and subdivided into as many as 28 homes, Bennett said. They envision the school housing the Oak View public library and other arts or social-service groups, including, potentially, the charter school.

Although the school allows parents to retain the primary responsibility for their child's education, students will have to meet with a Valley Oak teacher for at least three hours each week, Fellows said.

One parent for each student must also volunteer in the classroom for one full shift, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., about once every eight weeks. The school plans to be open three days a week, with teachers available for each of the age groupings: K-3, 4-6 and 7-10.

Having a central location where home-schoolers can meet makes a big difference for her family, said parent Robin Godfrey.

"It gives me a break," she said, "and it gives the kids that sense of community and a sense of belonging to a group."

Godfrey decided to home-school her oldest daughter, Paige, because the pacing suited her better than a public-school day did, she said. Her two other children also tried public school off and on, but would rather learn at home.

"I like that you can just do more, and you can choose what you want to do," said Paige, 11. "I can go at my own pace. And there's no homework."

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