Why LASD has no alternative schools?

Marge Gratiot, Los Altan of the Year 1998
Marge Gratiot, Los Altan of the Year 1998, Los Altos Town Crier
Written by lalahpolitico
Marge Gratiot, Los Altan of the Year 1998

LASD Superintendent Marge Gratiot, Los Altan of the Year 1998, Los Altos Town Crier

Before charters existed, diverse “alternative education” movements roiled through the US public education system for over 100 years.  California in the 1980’s and 1990’s was rife with dozens of different philosophical approaches to education.

In those day parents in several of our local districts successfully lobbied their districts to let them create various alternative programs, such as  parent participation programs which are usually schools that work with the “whole child.”  Santa Clara Unified District has been home to Washington/Westwood parent participation school for almost 40 years.  Mountain View Whisman District’s Stevenson parent participation school is about to celebrate it’s  20th anniversary.

The growth of public alternative schools shows that districts don’t have to have any underperforming schools to have a policy of offering choice to minority tastes.
—  a  board trustee from a nearby district


Los Altos Scene – 1990s – Alternative Programs spurned

In those days – the mid to late 1990’s — there were at least two groups of Los Altos district parents attempting to persuade the Los Altos School District Superintendent to offer alternatives.  One group wanted a parent participation program – whole child school.  Another group wanted a Mandarin immersion program. But Marge Gratiot knew best,  “Not interested. Our kids and parents are happy here.”

Soon thereafter the 1999 school bond passed comfortably. Parents at all schools worked for passage.

And that was the end of public alternative schools in the Los Altos School District … until the reopening of the formerly closed Covington campus was mismanaged, suffered large cost overruns and a one year schedule slip.  At the LASD helm were Marge Gratiot and Randy Kenyon.


Bear sculpture at Bullis school site on Fremont Rd.

An empty school is often where a school district will house a new” alternative” public school program

Los Altos Scene – 2002 – Vacant Purissma creates space for an Alternative

In response to blunder #1 – Covington cost overruns — and the tech bubble crash of 2001, Bullis Purissima (which the 1999 bond campaign had listed as the next school in line for remodeling after Covington) was closed.  Fix one blunder with another blunder #2.

Mark Breier was among the people leading the Purissima attendance area parent and resident campaign against the school closure. The story goes that he begged Marge for a better solution. At that time it looked like bridging just a $240K a year operating budget gap could have kept the school open.

It is a suburban legend that Marge Gratiot suggested to Mark Breier,” You could always open a charter school.” Obviously she must have meant it whimsically, or as conversational repartee.  Nonetheless, supposedly it was Marge who planted the seed of the fast-growing charter beanstalk. Blunder #3.

Breier did the research! Yes, a charter did look like a solution for the people who felt bond promises were broken when the school near their house was axed, but also for the parents who wanted alternative curricula and the parents who wanted Mandarin.  So the charter parents became activists because the unused school seemed to provide a location for a new kind of public school WITH A DIFFERENT TYPE OF CURRICULA – a school with an alternative program.

The charter law exists for groups of parents who find that their district has failed them.


parent showing young child how to hold a pencil for writing and drawing

Parent participation school —  showing young child how to hold a pencil for writing and drawing


A look a Nearby Alternative Programs – Palo Alto…

Palo Alto even has a web page for its choice schools and instructions on how to petition for a new school-program!


Palo Alto School District web page with all its choice programs, housed at public schools.

Palo Alto School District web page with all its choice programs, housed at public schools.

Palo Alto’s Hoover Elementary offers “direct instruction” which sounds like an emphasis on academics – a back to basics.   Ohlone offers a Dual Mandarin Chinese Immersion Program designed to develop full bilingualism in both Mandarin and English.  The program began in 2008 with two k-1 classes and will progress through 5th grade.   At Escondido the district offers a Spanish Dual Immersion Program to develop full bilingualism in both languages.

The Mandarin program in Palo Alto was famously started by Grace Ma, now Area One, County Board of Education Trustee.  Initially in 2006 the Palo Alto School Board was not too interested in the parents’ idea for a k-5 Mandarin program in, but then Ms. Ma spoke of starting a charter school. Knowing of the strife in Los Altos, the PAUSD board was able to figure it out and get a plan in motion to accommodate minority tastes. It is housed at Ohlone.

Mandarin language alternative programs are popular in Australia and North America

Public school Mandarin language alternative programs are popular in Australia and North America. Image from Capistrano Unified –

For middle school, Palo Alto’s Hoover graduates can continue on to Terman for the “direct instruction” academically oriented program there. Prefer the soft touch?  Try Connections at (at JLS – Jordan ) which sounds like a “whole child” school … “a focus on interactive, project-based, experiential learning through hands-on experiences and field trips.”   At Jordan middle school, a student can continue on in Spanish immersion.

Up in the San Carlos School District,  from the website, “… the San Carlos Charter Learning Center (CLC) was granted state charter number #001 in February 1993 by the State of California.  CLC is the oldest charter school in California and one of the oldest charter schools in the United States.  The school was created by a dedicated group of community members and educators.  The school opened its doors with eighty-five learners in 1994 and now maintains a steady population of 260 children.”

Alternative schools, like charters,  fill seats by lottery – usually only in-district kids may apply.



two little girls sharing small piles of coins

Lots of public school districts share parcel taxes with their alternative schools

Growth – Facilities in Flux for all – Parcel Tax Sharing 

In the Bay Area, virtually all school districts are now face climbing enrollments after years of declines in the 70’s.  Many  started alternative programs in the 80s and 90s, often exploiting then-unused classrooms.  The growth today means that neighborhood school boundaries are being moved, grades reconfigured, and alternative programs are being moved around sometimes, too.  Discomfort for all.

In San Carlos, parcel taxes are shared with their charter.  However, as of 2013-14 the CLC is being asked to move from the Tierra Linda campus — the hills on one end of town — to hills way on the other end of town near Vista Park .  To deal with its enrollment growth, San Carlos is putting two schools on each of its junior high sites  (4-5, and 6-8)  and doing grade reconfiguration (from K-4, 5-8)  to ( k-3, 4-5, 6-8).

To accommodate the charter, the San Carlos District is arranging a land swap with the city and will use some money from its 2012 bond to build a new school for the charter on the land.

In Mountain View Whisman, the District shares its local school parcel taxes with the alternative schools, therefore the Stevenson school asks parents for only a $300 donation per year. The money goes towards all the field trips that are a differentiated part of their program.  All the MVW students receive  about $10,000 a year in spending.  Compare that to Los Altos School District, which does not share its parcel taxes with the charter.  Los Altos School District has income of about $11,500 per student from state AND parcel taxes, while BCS has about $6000 from state taxes.  Therefore the average donation needs to be over $5000.

Mountain View’s Stevenson started life at a Whisman area school, spent some time at Castro school and is now is on a site between Theurkauf Elementary and the District’s administrative offices.   Castro is home to a Spanish Dual Immersion School.

Santa Clara Unified’s Westwood parent participation school has had to move to Washington Elementary.

Bungle a “little school problem” often enough and it becomes a big school problem”

Lalahpolitico observes that all the fairly-treated alternative programs in neighboring towns have stayed fairly small. When Mark Breier and the first board of trustees launched Bullis Charter, they never aspired to be a program with more than 400 or so students.  They just wanted a progressive whole child program that included environmental themes, foreign languages, and the arts, providing that curricula to the original founding parents & kids whom Marge Gratiot had denied and to newcomers who valued BCS’s educational philosophy.

If Los Altos School District Superintendent Gratiot and Randy Kenyon had sold Purissima to BCS or the city of LAH, or rented it to BCS, the small size of the campus itself would have capped BCS growth. [Blunders #5 and #6]  Now ten years later, the BCS  will grow to 900 students,  serving the apparent demand for alternative curricula in the public system. FYI last fall the BCS board offered to contractually cap its enrollment at 900 in exchange for a 15 year lease on a more equivalent amount of land and portables on Blach and Egan.

Most Alternative Schools are District Run – not in Los Altos

Marge Gratiot blundered first in the 1990’’s by not listening to parents asking for alternative programs and Mandarin in the 1990s. Then she blundered later again by refusing to approve the charter for the Breier school. Blunder #7,  the county approved the charter.

Lalahpolitico does not know how the nearby alternative programs within public schools were first staffed up. Perhaps some existing district teachers may have been invited to apply.  But there was probably a great deal of fresh hiring.  Nonetheless, these teachers in alternative programs are employees of their district and do become part of the local union once they achieve tenure (4 years way back when, takes only 2 ½ years now.)  Unlike alternative schools, charters usually have non-union teachers.  Bullis Charter teachers do have California STRS pensions and healthcare benefits, but tenure is not a benefit. [Lalahpolitio: tenure is not a benefit that most of my circle have ever enjoyed/suffered. Is teacher tenure good, bad or neutral for kids?]

Still unmet demand for alternatives in Los Altos? Yes

Bullis Charter provides a K-8 public school choice for parents who want a progressive “whole child program” with more art-music-performance time, blended learning in math, science and engineering,  and Mandarin that starts in kindergarten. [Lalahpolitico hopes to write a short post soon that explains in more detail how different BCS really is.]

Looking at public school alternatives offered in other nearby communities, Lalahpolitico thinks there is probably still unmet demand in LASD for a Dual Immersion Mandarin program, and also for a back-to-basics program (direct instruction – pre-college prep).

There already is a parent participation pre-school  for little kiddies at Covington. Lalahpolitico doesn’t know if that level of volunteering could extend to higher grades or not. Too many of our Los Altos District moms are leaning in, aren’t they?


magnet attracting iron filings

Does Los Altos need another choice school? Could it be a district-run magnet?

Convert the Charter to a Magnet? Or District as Authorizer?

 Maybe the next Los Altos School District start-up alternative school-magnet school-choice school could be district-run and not another charter. As for the charter school we already have – a school created largely in response to blunders of Los Altos School District officials —  maybe the Los Altos School District could actually start treating the BCS  parents, teachers and kids fairly.  Unfortunately it seems that 98% of LASD trustee energy (and way too much LASD staff time) is being squandered on innovative  Prop 39 “equivalence” computations and new angles for litigation. The unfair treatment just seems make the charter more innovative … and bigger.

And dear reader, as you may know, the idea of BCS converting to a District supervised school is not new. During the fall of 2013,  long-term facility meetings were held in Los Altos Hills, moderated by Mayor Gary Waldeck. At one of those meetings, BCS trustee Francis La Poll said that converting the charter from County supervision to the District supervision was considered as part of a 2005-6(?) facilities deal that never gelled.  He said the board would consider it again once an amicable long-term facilities arrangement was in place for a few years.





1) Definition of Charter School, Alternative School

“People often ask me about charter schools as if they were a type of school. In fact, charter schools represent many types of schools. The charter status of a school relates only to how public education is governed at the macro level of politics, and not how the school approaches education. For example, some charter schools are Waldorf, others are back-to-basics, and many are specialty schools (such as schools focused on foreign languages, arts, or music).”

“Even the term “alternative” is ambiguous; for some people (especially in many U.S. states), it implies schools for “at risk” youth only, rather than being for the education of all children and often for adults as well. So sometimes it is useful to distinguish “philosophical alternatives” from the “at-risk alternatives.” These alternatives include educational options for the developmental needs and learning styles of all children. However, “philosophical alternatives” is a mouthful, so I often use “alternatives” for short.”


2) A long history of progressive education movements vs. the public school bureaucracy vs. industrial/corporate interests from a quasi-Marxist perspective. Skim or start from the recent history at the end.


The early history is illuminating and not really too controversial. But here is some excerpted sample anti-charter rhetoric in the history of the most recent decades.

“This [sic charter] organization promotes a curriculum and organization that also adopts many progressive methods but with non-progressive ends. ”

“The SFA “alternative” program has adopted many of the means of progressive theory – integrated, active, cooperative learning about the real world – but seems to be studiously avoiding the ends of progressive education – students learning how to decide what the goals of society should be.”

[Lalahpolitico: And I know I want my kids less than 30 years old deciding what the goals of society should be. DO NOT! Let them live a little first. ]

“Reed Hastings, the other co-founder of UPS, is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and a member of California’s State Board of Education.  Shalvey is the co-founder of Californians for Public School Excellence which successfully sponsored AB544 resulting in the California Charter Schools Act of 1998.  Shalvey is currently a member of California Superintendent Delaine Eastin’s Charter School Committee.  As superintendent of the San Carlos school district, Shalvey turned one of the district’s schools into a charter school and then sent a letter to all the other schools in the district to encourage them to become charters.  The original charter soon became an “R & D” lab “for programs and methods then adopted by the district” (UPS, 2000)”


3)  A history of recent reform

“…Restructuring period initiatives (1986–1995) altered the way education was organized and governed, devolving authority to schools (particularly teachers) and to parents. Examples include school-based management and school choice. So-called whole-school designs emerged during this period as well, representing ambitious attempts to restructure American education.

The New American Schools, the Coalition of Essential Schools, Core Knowledge schools, Accelerated Schools, Success for All, and the Edison Project represent these research-based, result-driven comprehensive plans to reorganize entire schools. Restructuring reforms also reached beyond the schoolhouse, linking education and social services in an effort to address poverty, pregnancy, and other nonschool circumstances that inhibit students’ learning.”


4) The always amusing… Reading Wars – Phonics vs. Whole Language in California in the 90s


5) A history of math education in the US since the 1920. Jump to the end for California in the 1990s.


6) Being an alternative program for public school students was always part of the early Bullis Charter plan.

“Once we get the charter, we will consider other sites along with Bullis where we can have a small school in a rural setting that takes advantage of the local flavor of Los Altos Hills. It will be an educational alternative open to every child in the district.” Craig Jones.

“As we become successful at fund-raising, we can pay for and will then pay for P.E., instrumental music, and art.” [not then in the Los Altos School District elementary program]

“This school will be different from the district-run schools. We are using the core curriculum as the starting point. The energy and interests of the parents will cause us to evolve from there. Another strong interest is in introducing foreign language and foreign studies earlier in elementary school.”  Gordon Moore.

“The district would prefer we start a private school, but that would hurt public education more … “Craig Jones

About the author


Norma Schroder is an economics & market researcher by trade and ardent independent journalist, photographer and videographer by avocation. Enthralled by the growth of the tech industry over the decades, she became fascinated with the business of local politics only in the past several years.

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