They came bearing signs, spirit and support for Oxford Day Academy, packing the Birch Conference room in the Sequoia Union High School District building in Redwood City on Wednesday night. Despite testimonies of support from the standing-room-only crowd, the Board of Trustees voted 3-2 against approval of the charter school after more than two-and-a-half hours of deliberation.
With two board members for and two against the new charter school, chairman Alan Sarver cast the deciding "no" vote, citing concerns about the proposal's lack of details and capacity of a small staff, among other hesitations.
The Oxford Day Academy is a brand-new, public charter high school with an instructional approach based on that of the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Founded by an Oxford graduate, Mallory Dwinal, the proposed charter school uses a tutorial model that asks students to learn core academic skills through in-depth projects with real-world applications in their community, like looking at local crime rates as part of a math problem or writing a grant application for a local school in need of funding, Dwinal said in an interview.
Teachers and "socio-emotional learning coaches" work with students in small groups on a daily basis at a multi-grade, interdisciplinary "learning studio."
The tuition-free school would also be a "multicultural social leadership academy" with strong community connections, Dwinal said.
Dwinal, a local resident, hopes to open such a school in East Palo Alto to serve 200 students in the fall of 2017. More than 300 parents of district students, teachers and others signed the Oxford Day Academy's petition, which was submitted to the board in March, Dwinal said.
While at least one board member appreciated the school's innovative aspects, most were unconvinced that the program was fleshed out enough to be successful.
"I need to see it in a more compelling, convincing manner, of how that big cloud is going to be filled in with more rigor and detail and success," Sarver said.
Trustee Allen Weiner echoed Sarver's sentiments, expressing concerns about the effect on students if the Oxford Day Academy model proved unsuccessful.
"What if the school doesn't work? What if the model is a failure? Who loses? It's not me. It's the children who are in an educational program that doesn't serve them," Weiner said.
Trustee Chris Thomsen went back and forth weighing the risks and rewards before ultimately putting his support behind the school, which drew an applause from the audience.
Carrie Du Bois, the other board member who voted in favor of the school, said she does not like charter schools, but was willing to take a chance on Oxford Day Academy.
"I'm going to take a risk here," she said. "A big one. I do believe some of our kids are not getting their needs met. I'm going to take a risk on innovation. I'm going to trust that this is going to work. I'm going to trust the testimony I heard tonight."
Sarver, Weiner and Georgia Jack ultimately cast the three "no" votes.
The board's vote followed a recommendation from the district's leadership team to reject the charter petition. The leadership team, which included the superintendent and other senior staff members, reviewed the Oxford Day Academy's petition along with outside legal counsel and "financial experts" and found it to be lacking, even inconsistent at points, a report reads.
"Petitioners have provided too fluid a description as to how the instructional portions of the program will work," the leadership team's report states. "As they evolve, the lack of acknowledgment, or outright erroneous implementation, of the fundamental processes of nonclassroom-based and classroom-based instruction is troubling.
"Based upon the lack of discussion or acknowledgement of these significant issues, it does not appear that the charter school will successfully implement the program contemplated in the petition," the report reads.
The leadership team also identified concerns about curriculum, enrollment and budget.
Dwinal gave a presentation at the beginning of the meeting Wednesday to address the district's main criticisms.
The leadership team raised concerns over the calculation that students would only be spending three 45-minute tutorials with teachers a week. But Dwinal projected that by the school's second year, 71 percent of students' time would be spent in a small-group setting with teachers while the remaining time would be spent under the supervision of socio-emotional learning coaches.
Additionally, students would spend four hours each day in the learning studio, focusing on four core subjects: math, English, science and social studies. The school will implement internal benchmarks for students to reach and monitor outcomes, Dwinal said.
She argued that the petition met all the qualifications set forth by the district and should be approved.
"This is not a vote about whether or not we have a great school, or even an OK school," Dwinal said. "This is a vote about whether we have a legal school."
In response to concerns over the educational benefit of the school, Dwinal cited support from organizations such as the California Charter Schools Association and EdTec, an Emeryville organization that supports charter schools. Oxford Day Academy also has the financial backing of NewSchools Venture Fund, an Oakland nonprofit that provides grants to innovative schools.
Over the last year, Dwinal also piloted the Oxford Day Academy program at three Bay Area sites with "really exciting and promising" results, she told the Weekly. The pilots were housed at Cindy Avitia High School, a public charter school in San Jose; the Khan Lab School in Mountain View; and Redwood Heights School, an elementary school in Oakland.
Dwinal argued the district's assessment that it is "demonstrably unlikely" the school will be able to implement its program is subjective. She also shot down concerns that the school has no physical site yet, noting that no organization would be willing to start facilities negotiations until the school is officially approved. (Her petition does identify the St. Francis of Assisi Church on Bay Road as a possible site and includes a letter from the parish priest stating that the church is considering letting the charter school use the facilities there, according to the district.)
"Parents have a right to a choice in a different model from traditional school setting," Dwinal said. "We have as a community the strengths, assets, capacity and model to make this work."
Several supporters of Oxford Day Academy, including local parents, teachers and students, spoke to the board on Wednesday night.
Martha Hanks, a Ravenswood City School District teacher for more than 40 years and former co-president of the Ravenswood Teachers' Association, said the individualized attention Oxford could give to students would be beneficial.
"Personalized education has proven to be effective for all youth, but particularly for youth in our community, as many of them have needs, interests and learning styles that may not be met in a traditional classroom setting," she said. "I believe by providing a personalized education, Oxford Day Academy will level the playing field for countless youth to excel in high school and graduate from college."
Brianna Boyd, a 16-year-old East Palo Alto resident who attends the private Menlo School in Atherton, described how she had struggled in traditional school settings. She said the Oxford Day Academy would present the right mix of education and real-world experience.
"Being able to have this opportunity to attend one of the top schools in the country and going to such a prestigious school in a predominantly white community has made me very appreciative of where I am now, but also aware of the struggle I had to go through to end up at Menlo," she said.
In an interview before the board meeting, Dwinal said that the petition is not about being at odds with the school district, but rather offering families the "freedom and flexibility to try something that's really radically different."
"For me, the most compelling way to think about any set of schools, whether it's district schools or private schools or charter schools (is) they're an ecosystem," she said. "There's never going to be one single piece, one model that is the right model for all kids.
"The hope for us is that by offering this profoundly different approach, we'll be able to create a new option for students and families."
After Wednesday's vote, supporters of Oxford Day Academy gathered outside, vowing to take their fight to the county level. Dwinal said before the meeting that if the petition failed to pass, she would appeal the board's decision to the San Mateo County Board of Education.
"The only way we can do this is if you go home and tell 10 people," one woman told the group. "You have to go home and get this momentum and keep it on fire.
"Thomas Edison did not turn on a light bulb his first time. This is a successful night because now we know exactly what we're looking for" moving forward, she said.
Oxford Day Academy is the latest charter school to make a bid for East Palo Alto. The Ravenswood City School District board recently approved a TK-8 KIPP Bay Area School, set to open next fall.
Priscilla Chan, wife of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, is also planning to open a free, private pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school in East Palo Alto called The Primary School.
The Sequoia Union school district currently sponsors two independent charter high schools, Summit Prep Charter and Everest Public in Redwood City. It also supports East Palo Alto Academy (EPAA), which was launched by and receives support from the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, as a dependent charter school.
Two other charter schools also operate within the Ravenswood City School District boundaries in East Palo Alto: the K-6 East Palo Alto Charter School and the 7-12 East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy. Both are operated by the charter organization Aspire Public Schools, though the Sequoia school district previously sponsored East Palo Alto Phoenix, according to a district staff report.
Staff writer Elena Kadvany contributed to this story.