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Cascade Locks struggles for charter school approval as school district prepares to cut grades 6-8

March 19, 2011

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THE HALLS of Cascade Locks School, above, which lost its high school population a year ago, will likely hold even fewer students next year, as the School District nears a decision on transferring 6-8th graders to Hood River Middle School.

By BEN MCCARTY

News staff writer

With Cascade Locks School likely to lose grades 6-8 next year, the long-term fate of grades 6-12 in the town remains up in the air.

Last month the state board of education received a recommendation from an independent review board that it should decline to sponsor a Cascade Locks charter school proposal for grades K-12. That came on the heels of the Hood River County School Board twice rejecting a similar proposal.

George Fischer, the Charter School Committee president, traveled to Salem last week to discuss the review with the state board of education ahead of its vote on the school April 14.

"I told them we are trying every option available," Fischer said. The committee went to the state after mediation efforts with the Hood River County School District failed late last year.

Typically charter schools are sponsored by the school's local board, but if the school board does not approve of the application, the school can go to the Oregon Department of Education as a sponsor.

The success rate at the state level is about 15 percent, said Susan Inman, the director of learning options and opportunities for the Oregon Department of Education.

There are currently four state-sponsored schools in Oregon out of 108 charter schools. Around 27 proposed schools have attempted to gain state-level sponsorship after failing to do so at the local level.

If the state board rejects the Cascade Locks Charter School application at its April meeting, the only option remaining for the school would be through a judicial review process at the circuit court level.

"If the state does say no, we'll take it to judicial review," Fischer said.

If the judicial review board also declines the application, the charter school committee would have exhausted all of its options on the current proposal.

Fischer said he understands the financial motivations for the school district, but believes continued cuts to Cascade Locks School harm the community.

"It's a financially good decision for the school district but for Cascade Locks it is devastating," he said.

Barring a reversal of course by the school board, grades 6-8 will disappear at the school next year, with the 18 students being bused to Hood River, where Hood River Middle School will be their new school.

The precise fate of next year's seventh and eighth graders from Cascade Locks, be they enrolled in a charter school or elsewhere, won't be formally known until after the school board passes its 2011-12 budget in June.

The Hood River County School District budget plan will be presented April 6 and then go through budget committee review before going to the school board for the final decision in June

"Hood River Middle School would be the home school," for those 18 students, Beck said. Attending Wy'east, or schools outside the district, would be a matter of family choice, he added.

The proposal that Cascade Locks submitted to the Hood River County school board and the state board of education was for a K-12 program, and while there has been some discussion of making it a 6-12 charter school program, that would require a reapplication for state and federal grants.

"The charter school can be a useful thing to those residents of Cascade Locks who want to keep their kids in the community," Beck said, "but it is critical that any charter school provide the necessary academic rigor; so it provides the same education as the standard schools, and sufficiently prepares students to graduate and to pursue higher education."

The review committee at the state level also had serious concerns about the academic program at the school, advising the state board not to sponsor it out of concern that it is lacking in its ability to provide both a "capability to provide comprehensive instructional programs" and a "capability to provide comprehensive instructional programs to academically low-achieving" students.

While Fischer lobbied the state board on the school's behalf, there is not much of a chance it will change its mind from the independent review recommendation.

"One of the things people rarely understand is that there have been past directives for the board and reviewers not to consider additional information after failure to get approval of the school at the district level," said Inman.

New information could be considered if the proposal were to become 6-12, but it would have to go back before the school board and reapply for grant funding.

Beck said the district is open to a charter school in Cascade Locks but that it would need to be done the right way.

"I don't fear charter schools," said Beck, who as Bend-Lapine School District superintendent worked with a total of eight charter schools. "There can be a symbiotic relationship," if charter schools are properly established and administered.

Fischer believes that getting a charter school in Cascade Locks is of vital importance to keep people in the community.

"They closed down our high school and some kids went to Hood River, some to Corbett some to Sandy and some across the river," Fischer said. "Now they are going to shut down our junior high.

"If you look at the trend, they shut down the high school, are trying to shut down the junior high - who's to say they won't shut down the grade school?"

Read the independent review report to the state board of education at: http://bit.ly/clreport

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