Rusty Gregory’s going back to school. Perhaps not as an actual student, but the Mammoth Mountain CEO could well have a significant presence within the hallways of Mammoth High School, starting as early as the upcoming school year.
Gregory, whose son starts MHS as a freshman this fall, is the driving force (and economic engine) behind a new school concept that seeks to revamp certain aspects of the high school, particularly those concerning education options for athletes who are absent from school 40 or more days per year.
During the Mammoth Unified School District (MUSD) special workshop Tuesday night, the Board of Education heard a proposal delivered by Dan Dawson, speaking on behalf of Gregory (who was unable to be present), pitching the concept of a privately-funded Independent Study Center. As Dawson outlined it, the ISC would take the place of the district’s Mammoth Olympic Academy charter school.
The ISC is conceptualized as being built around an internet-based curriculum, and would cater to existing student-athletes as well as mainstream students seeking greater educational opportunities.
For example, Mammoth High School does not offer French language classes for Advanced Placement Calculus. Those classes would be available in an ISC format.
Dawson cited a number of people who have moved their families out of town because of what he described as “educational constraints” at MHS. He said, however, “This isn’t about assigning blame; it’s about building a high school that will make people want to move here.” The problem, he said, is that the weakest part of the local education system is in the high school.
“Limited enrollment leads to limited faculty which leads to limited curriculum,” he said. “Couple that with kids of divergent backgrounds and we need more options.” Dawson also spoke of a “malaise” that sets in when kids aren’t engaged intellectually.
“How have we responded? By dividing up kids into smaller groups.” Dawson pointed out that a community which should have one high school in fact has five, with MHS, Sierra Academy, the Charter School, the new Mammoth Lakes Academy and a home school program, all part of a fragmented high school landscape.
That, he said, has also had the effect of splintering parents and resources.
Implementation of the ISC would mean dissolving the Charter School. Dawson said the Charter School has been an important, needed experiment, but one that ultimately failed when it came to meeting the needs of the community.
As Dawson put it, the new ISC would, over time, “provide more opportunities for the student body as a whole.”
Dawson said the idea is for ISC students to not only be under the roof of the high school, but also be able to take part in all school activities, sports included. “Right now, they’re missing opportunities to attend [interact] with their peers, missing out on the high school experience.”
Funded by a $250,000 recurring “gift” from Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, the ISC project is ready to embark on its first school year now, though little change is immediately anticipated in the fundamental working of the center, at least in the short term.
None of the Charter School parents in attendance voiced any opposition to the ISC, but several did pose questions to Dawson and the Board. Anna Allen, for one, asked about the effect dissolving the school would have. “The Charter housing will change, but the concept won’t necessarily change,” commented MUSD Superintendent Dr. Frank Romero.
Board Chair Shana Stapp said she saw “little change” for the first semester, and estimated a year before any major evolution in the school. Access would be somewhat limited at first as the former Charter School is absorbed into the new ISC matrix. The plan is for the entire program to be open to all students by next school year.
Dawson acknowledged that there are some details to be worked out, including how class management would be designed vis-a-vis the Center’s competitive athletes, who are on the road much of the winter season.
He also said there are no preconceived expectations the ISC is any kind of “silver bullet” that will work perfectly right out of the box. “With new opportunities come new problems.”
One issue among several to be resolved by Romero and his staff is that of teachers. With some 10,000 teachers out of work statewide, that raised the question of what happens to any instructors currently under contract with the Charter School. Romero did say that any new teachers hired would fall under the district’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that currently exist with the state and teachers unions. Also, nothing was directly discussed as to the fate of the Charter School’s current Administrator, Jim Barnes and whether or not he would be a part of ISC.
Another issue was the gift funding, which Dawson said comes with a couple of caveats. Recognizing that there are needs in other levels, Dawson made clear the funds are to be earmarked and not to be deposited in the General Fund. Romero said the funds have to come through the district’s recently established Mammoth Now educational fund in order to be earmarked, and would be be audited separately.
On the upside, Dawson opined that money could be made available to incentivize existing faculty (say with an extra $10,000 stipend) to teach extra classes outside the normal 6-period day. “It’s an opportunity for us to be really creative,” Romero said.
“[The ISC] is a platform on which to address real issues at MHS,” Dawson said, not just a ‘propping up’ of the Charter School.”
Most parents were behind it as well, and emphasized fast-tracking it as soon as possible. “Kids are excited about this — delaying it would be wrong,” said Stan Eller.
Not all were for the fast-track approach, however. “Are we speeding through this too quickly?” questioned Riki Barbo, who advocated a more methodical step-by-step approach. “I’m not against the idea, but kids have expectations and it’s not fair to just throw this at them. It’s hard enough being 16.”
Parent Tom Cage took her point, but asked the Board to take what he called the “leap of faith,” going on to opine that “kids are adaptable, they can get through the bumpy parts.” Randy Gephardt said the most exciting part for him is “getting Charter kids back into the high school” and “busting open” what he called the status quo.
For his part, Romero reiterated that one of his main goals as superintendent has always been finding “alternative pathways” in education. “It’s difficult to be innovative in high school because of the state’s lock-step programming mandates,” he said. “The successful districts are ones that can partner with the business community, and this is clearly an opportunity that doesn’t come along often.”
While details were not expected to be fully ironed out by the first day of school on Aug. 27, the Board went for it, reaching consensus for Romero to proceed with implementation of the ISC, including drafting a resolution to dissolve the Charter School that will come before the Board at its next regular meeting on Aug. 24.
“The reason you guys have a place to teach is because of guys like me donating buildings.”
-Rodney Dangerfield (as Thornton Melon in “Back to School)