School Board members have a real challenge on their hands when it comes to Castle Rock Charter School.
The Del Norte County Office of Education opened Castle Rock to bring more homeschooled children into public education. Thus it was structured around the concept of less class time and more independent study. That approach has attracted other students in search of an alternative to mainstream public school, and Castle Rock's current enrollment is almost 500.
Castle Rock has staunch supporters, as evidenced by the turnout of about 150 people at Wednesday's special School Board meeting. Parents and teenagers gave testimonials about how the charter school is keeping students on track to earn high school diplomas when they might otherwise have dropped out.
There are myriad reasons why some youths do not succeed in traditional public schools, and every community must supply alternatives. Unlike private charters, Castle Rock is still a public school. It's run by the school district, which receives state money for serving Castle Rock students - funds the district does not receive for students attending private charters or being completely homeschooled.
Now, however, the state has placed Castle Rock on a list of under-performing schools that it wants closed or radically restructured. School districts that move quickly are eligible for federal funds to make the changes. Or districts can refuse the funds and take their own approach to fixing problem schools.
The latter approach was supported by the vast majority of people who spoke at Wednesday's meeting. Give Castle Rock time to effect its own changes, speakers urged the School Board. Principal Dennis Burns talked about some of the plans already being considered, such as increasing the required classroom time for struggling students while allowing others to continue on a more independent course of study.
Accepting federal grant money to institute draconian changes or even close the school doesn't make financial sense, Burns said, because many students would move to private charters, convert to complete homeschooling or simply drop out, costing the district more than it would get from the grants.
Castle Rock supporters were assured by Board President Bill Maffett on Wednesday that the school will not be closed. Deciding what will be done is a much more difficult task.
It may be tempting for district officials to obsess on the seeming unfairness of a facility like Castle Rock being included on the state's list of under-performing schools. After all, this is an alternative school, and many of the students are already struggling when they arrive. Of course schools like this are likely to have lower results on standardized tests.
That doesn't mean, however, that there isn't room for improvement.
Castle Rock was already up for renewal of its charter this year, and now the state is waving a red flag. Board members must decide if the school's own proposed plans for reform are sufficient. If they aren't, the board must further decide whether to take federal money and effect radical changes or go it alone and keep the process at the local level.
Ultimately they should be guided not by the financial pros or cons of various options, but by the need to do better by our children. There are plenty of excuses available, but Castle Rock needs to show improvement in the measure of accountability that public education has adopted nationwide, and that is standardized testing.