West County Charter Middle School set to disband after opening more than a year ago

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Ava Manuel was excited to start seventh grade this school year at West County Charter Middle School in Forestville, where she found a small but nurturing community of teachers.

“If I have a problem, they help me,” said Manuel, 12. “This is one of the years I’ve actually liked all my teachers.”

So, she was saddened to learn the school will be disbanded in June because of budget problems in the West Sonoma County Union High School District. The district opened the school only a year and a half ago. It has 86 students.

It was an emotionally fraught decision for school board members. Officials say the district, which has faced declining enrollment at its other campuses, ran into unforeseen costs with the charter school, including for special education.

“Because the West Sonoma County Union High School District is facing fiscal challenges of its own, the district would not be able to make additional financial contributions to support the continued operation of the West County Charter Middle School,” Superintendent Toni Beal wrote in a letter to parents.

After years of planning, the charter school opened in August 2017 as a partnership between West County Union and the Forestville Union School District.

Seventh- and eighth-graders from the Forestville district were moved to the West County district under the agreement, although the charter school shared a campus off Highway 116 with Forestville School and Academy.

West County Charter changed the way school was formatted for the seventh- and eighth-graders — from a self-contained classroom to a single-subject model, which allows students to move to different classes throughout the day, much like they would in high school.

The students will be able to remain on the campus in the fall, but will be part of the Forestville school district, said Phyllis Parisi, its superintendent.

“I wish West County the best. It’s a very collaborative relationship with administration, and we want to continue that with staff,” Parisi said.

The Forestville district will consider whether to continue with the multiple subject model or revert back to a single- classroom model for the charter school students when they return to the district, Parisi said.

Most of the West County Charter teachers have single-subject credentials, so they wouldn’t be able to stay if the school goes to a single classroom model, Principal Kirsten Sanft said.

“The children love their school. They like the format; they like that it’s a little more creative,” said Manuel’s mother, April, who also has a niece at the school. “They’ve enjoyed their school year, and they were very upset that the school was closing so soon after it opened.”

The school emphasizes social and emotional learning, and in its short run has cultivated a tight-knit culture where teachers communicate with each other when a student might be having a bad day, Sanft said. There’s even a school therapy dog named Luna.

“Kids are less likely to get lost because we notice,” Sanft said. “What my staff has done in the last year and a half has been incredible.”

The agreement between the two districts was terminated during a Jan. 23 West Sonoma County Union school board meeting.

“To say that it is a disappointment is hardly touching the surface of how I feel,” school board president Diane Landry wrote in an email. “We couldn’t take the chance that the fiscal resources for the high schools would be impacted, especially since we already have to make budgetary cuts in the district.”

The district has nearly 2,000 students and a budget of about $25 million.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say it was the cost of special education, but the potential cost for special education and nonstandard services are pretty much open-ended,” said David Stecher, former board president. “You have no way of anticipating what your bottom line is because students change, but the budget doesn’t change.”

Manuel attended the January board meeting even though it ran late on a school night. As a student, she said it was important for her to be present when the board made its decision about her school.

“It was important for me to realize this is the real world,” she said.

Teachers also attended the meeting and a few openly cried, Manual said.

“I was intensely sad,” Sanft said. “I really put my heart into building this school, and that takes a lot of energy and love.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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