District 51, school still haggling on charter

District 51 is still negotiating with Juniper Ridge Community School over a long-term charter agreement, though officials say the major points have been agreed upon.

The charter school is moving toward another multi-year agreement with District 51 to continue operating, and was approved earlier this month by the school board for a 45-day extension of its charter.

The extension gives the district enough time to consider an agreement at the board’s next meeting in August, after its July recess. Juniper Ridge’s initial charter expired June 30, and an agreement was not able to be reached by that deadline.

Though district officials have expressed concern over low standardized test scores at the Waldorf school, they say they’ve agreed upon a plan that will support the school’s improvement and allow Juniper Ridge to continue operating.

Juniper Ridge is entering its third year on “turnaround,” the state-designated label for schools on improvement plans for their low performance on standardized tests.

Academic performance and individual student growth were two concerns that were “ironed out pretty early in the game,” said Ron Roybal, the district’s executive director of advocacy and support. The final charter agreement will lay out expectations for improvement, he said.

“We want them to be able to show growth in a quantitative way,” Roybal said. “Since we’re at this point in the accountability clock we need to be confident that they’re turning things around and getting out of that time clock.” Turnaround schools have five years to achieve performance before the state may restructure them, he said.

“What we’ve agreed to with them is for them to show good-faith efforts in improving these scores,” Roybal said, adding that he believes the negotiations are mostly completed but the drafts are being finalized by both parties’ lawyers.

District 51 sees its role as a “compliance officer,” Roybal said, making sure Juniper Ridge is meeting requirements to receive per-pupil funding from the state. Juniper Ridge receives 97 percent of that per-pupil funding and District 51 keeps 3 percent for administrative costs.

The district does not have jurisdiction over Juniper Ridge’s curriculum or philosophy, which focuses on a nature-based curriculum and values creativity, self-reliance and independent thinking.

One of the issues Juniper Ridge faces is that its Waldorf curriculum doesn’t align closely with the state’s academic standards, which means students are being tested on standards they haven’t necessarily learned in that particular grade level. Waldorf schools have a different timeline for learning expectations and don’t integrate technology in lower grades, which some say affects their standardized test scores.

“We don’t push reading on kids in kindergarten, from an educational and philosophical point of view,” said George Rau, Juniper Ridge’s treasurer on its Board of Stewards, who has been involved with the school since its inception.

The school received permission to have its students take standardized tests with paper and pencil last spring, which some are hoping will help bridge the gap and show what their students actually know, not assess them on how well they use computers to take tests.

“We feel this academic piece, or the testing piece, is in the process of being resolved,” Rau said. Juniper Ridge has also hired more staff for remedial instruction, to help kids catch up with the state’s expectations.

Juniper Ridge officials are waiting to see the results from spring testing, and Rau is less concerned about that than he is about the other terms of the charter.

“The key issue is the renewal that they give us, how long will it be?” he said.

The school is at a crossroads — it’s outgrowing its current location, students in the upper grades will temporarily attend class at the old R-5 High School this year. Renewing the charter with District 51 for multiple years to achieve stability is one piece of the puzzle for the growing campus.

Rau said Juniper Ridge is expecting increased attendance at the school based on enrollment numbers, which indicate approximately 350 students will be attending. That’s a roughly 13 percent increase in the student body compared to last year, continuing a trend of rapid growth that the school has experienced since it first opened its doors in 2013.


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