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Upstart Charter School Backers Getting More Organized

Although a master plan for a new charter school in Novato isn't ready for prime time, the movement is gaining momentum as more basic information is released.

Upstart Charter School Backers Getting More Organized Upstart Charter School Backers Getting More Organized

So many questions can't be answered quite yet about rough-draft plans for a new charter school in Novato. Where will it be located? How much will it cost? What will the language of its charter say?

No proposal has been issued to the yet, but lots of people around town — including prospective parents — are chatting freely about the North Bay Educational Foundation and its goals.

And so are the two people behind the idea, MJ Lonson and Robert Verhoeff. Their motivations, mysterious to many, are becoming clear after two recent public meetings. Their media shyness is wearing off now that momentum is slowly gaining in the community for a kindergarten-through-eighth grade public charter school that would serve as an alternative to options out there right now.

The curriculum would follow the Core Knowledge model (see PDF and videos), just like more than 700 other schools in the country, and provide a much different educational path than the 's Waldorf-based strategy. Lonson and Verhoeff say Core Knowledge, created by a former university professor, is a proven methodology that mixes educational lessons — math with history, history with science, science with social studies — and has a track record of improving standardized test results.

About 200 people showed up for a June 11 meeting at a local church, including some skeptics, and the result was a hearty ovation even though many specifics couldn't be answered. Then two weeks ago three representatives of another Core Knowledge school, Rocklin Academy, came to town to answer more questions.

Between the two meetings, Lonson said she and Verhoeff are receiving lots of positive feedback.

"Did I get what I wanted out of (the first meeting)? Yes, because we wanted to inform, get people inspired, get them to volunteer and give them an understanding that this is a whole community effort," Lonson said. "We got applause, which was amazing. It was a barometer, and that's one of the main reasons we did it."

Lonson and Verhoeff said they've talked with Superintendent Shalee Cunningham and other NUSD officials and invited the board of trustees to the two meetings. They said Cunningham's experience with charter schools at her previous job in Colorado works to everyone's benefit with this new campaign.

"Shalee said she is not afraid of charters," Lonson said. "We're hoping communication will stay open. They don't want to be blindsided with this."

"We're not passing judgment on what NUSD is doing," Verhoeff said. "We're bringing forth what we think is an exciting option. How they react is up to them. We hope they see it as a benefit and can work with them to bring this to community."

So who are these visionaries/instigators?

Lonson has been heavily involved in Novato public schools for two decades as her children have gone through the system. She has been a PTA president at three schools over the past 17 years and volunteered for countless school programs and projects.

Verhoeff has lived in Novato for eight years with his family, which includes three kids in the school district. His background is in accounting and he serves as an executive with Best Collateral in Bel Marin Keys.

"The main thing is we want kids in public education," Lonson said. "We feel this might offer a new alternative to attract kids and their parents from the private school sector. We have talked to people who are either planning to move or going private. I believe in public education and I want to see our schools going strong."

Verhoeff added that people who don't have kids in the public schools have approached them about the Core Knowledge curriculum and been willing to help get the effort off the ground. They said some teachers have thrown their support behind the campaign as well because of the creative license offered by Core Knowledge teaching methods.

"When the Rocklin folks came down, you could tell how much they were behind the Core Knowledge system," Lonson said. "They are seeing more students take advanced courses when they get to high school. If we got this going here, we'd like to work closely and collaborate with 's new and 's () program to get middle schoolers in the charter school on track to do well at the next level."

Although the idea of starting a new charter school is coming right when the fiscal climate is so unpredictable, it might be the most opportune time to get it rolling, Lonson and Verhoeff said. Their logic: NUSD is in the midst of a long-term school facilities study and assessment of school geographic boundaries, so answers could come over the next year — "possibly really good timing," Verhoeff said  — about where and how a new charter school could fit in.

From the funding perspective, Lonson and Verhoeff are fully aware of the commitment it would take by local parents to not only back such a school philsophically but also financially. But they see it as an attractive proposition for NUSD as well. A district that survives on state money from average daily attendance should be looking to retain as many kids in the public school system as possible by offering a variety of choices.

"If it attracts and retains students, you can't afford not to do it," Lonson said.

Lonson and Verhoeff said they plan to make a presentation to the NUSD board sometime soon and will continue to post information on their Facebook page and website. The next North Bay Educational Foundation board meeting is at 6:30 p.m. July 12 at Verhoeff's workplace, Best Collateral, 285 Bel Marin Keys Blvd., Suite L.

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