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Academy for peace fails to get support.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

Hopes for a peace-focused charter school in Eugene crumbled Thursday when the State Board of Education voted unanimously to deny an appeal by the Children's Peace Academy for state sponsorship.

Wendy Strgar, who came up with the idea for the school more than three years ago, said the defeat came as no surprise. The state board's reasons for denial echoed those given by the Eugene School Board in February 2003, when it rejected a sponsorship bid by the would-be charter school.

"If the charter school law is worth the paper it is printed on,' Strgar said, `the state must find an alternative to the current rubber-stamping appeal and review that they now engage in. It sends the message loud and clear to all charter schools that this is not a level playing field."

Following a recommendation from Department of Education staff, the state board said the peace academy had failed to demonstrate that it could provide a comprehensive instructional program, or that it could offer adequate instruction and services for low-achieving and special needs students.

Peace academy proponents believe that the school could have addressed those concerns, but said it was powerless to do anything about the third reason given, which was the belief that the academy's value did not outweigh the "directly identifiable, significant and adverse impact" it would have on the quality of the education at other district schools.

"The problem with that is how does one evaluate the value of the charter school applicant, the charter school's curriculum and what they'll bring to the community?" asked academy board member Hal Noble, who had hoped to send his two sons there. "Who does the evaluation? What is considered an adverse impact? And who values the significance of that impact? It's very open-ended, and unfortunately the people who are doing the evaluation are the people who have a vested interest in not letting go of any funds to an 'outside' school."

That was the primary cause for denial by the Eugene board, which said losing any more elementary school students - and the dollars that follow them - would exacerbate the problem of declining enrollment.

But Joni Gilles, a department director who coordinates charter school issues, said the other concerns carried as much, if not more, weight with the state board. Before reading Eugene's assessment, Gilles said state department staff spent nearly 100 hours reviewing the Peace Academy application and came to the same conclusions. And state board members agreed.

"They had all read the application before they read our review and felt the views matched," Gilles said.

The Peace Academy's program would have centered on teaching children how to live in harmony with their global and local communities and the environment.

The school's initial target enrollment was 50 to 100 students in kindergarten through grade eight.

Strgar said the process has been inexcusably long - first at the Eugene district level, where the school board requested a six-month extension of the legal time line, only to deny the application.

Then the state dragged its feet, she said.

Following failed mediation between the district and the academy last spring, the academy turned its appeal in to the state last August, but didn't get to meet with department officials until January.

Gilles said she appreciated Strgar's frustration, and admitted that it's taken longer than everybody had hoped. While the law sets no time limits for appeals to the state, "of course, it should be timely," Gilles said, "and I think as we do this more and more we will be able to streamline it."

The state board has heard four appeals for sponsorship since the charter school law took effect in 1999, and two more are pending. In two cases, it approved sponsorship; the other denial was for the Harding Community Charter School in Corvallis.

Gilles also acknowledged that the Peace Academy may have come under greater scrutiny than previous applicants.

"The criteria hasn't changed, but we know more about what charter schools need to be successful, and about their readiness level," she said. "We probably asked the same questions, but we're more enlightened than we were three years ago."

Strgar, a mother of four who recently started a home-based aroma therapy business, said she and the academy's board will consider possible legal challenges to the state's process and decision.

In any case, she said, she has no regrets, and plans to keep the Peace Academy alive in some form.

"I don't have any shame about doing this, and I don't mind losing," she said. "But I want to lose in a fair fight and I don't feel like this fight's ever really been fair."

Strgar has taught peace classes at Spencer Butte Middle School and Ridgeline Montessori Public Charter School, and hopes more schools will adopt a peace curriculum.

"I am firmly committed to continuing this work in any capacity I can," she said.

The Peace Academy would have been the fifth charter school to open in Eugene, although one of those - Pioneer Youth Corps Military Academy - lost its charter and relocated to the Fern Ridge district. Charter schools receive public funds through sponsoring districts, but have their own governing boards and greater autonomy than regular public schools.
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Title Annotation:Schools; The State Board of Education rejects an appeal by the would-be school
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 19, 2004
Words:871
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