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"With our contract, we took 10 percent," said Mattole Superintendent Richard Graey. "They got 90 percent, and they could do whatever they wanted with the 90 percent. Charter schools really have a good purpose and a good niche, but there is so much room for fiscal irresponsibility.
"I don't think they really tried to cheat people," he added. "But they went into this without expertise, and they wanted to make the money. When I first started with them, they didn't want to have special-education kids in the school. I said, 'You can't do that. It's illegal not to serve disabled kids.' They just didn't know what the law said."
When new regulations confined enrollment to contiguous counties, Mattole, like Sierra Summit, was a limited business opportunity for one2one, which severed ties with Mattole. Graey was left with only 82 charter students, though he has since rebuilt enrollment to 500. His new partner is Randy Gaschler.
"The difference was night to day," said Graey. "One2one had five people doing everything. They didn't hire enough people to do the job. We went to Lincoln, and we could see 50 to 60 people that Randy had working. You know where the money is going, where the service is being provided. It was a breath of fresh air. It's what we thought we were getting into previously."
GASCHLER, WHO ONCE EVOKED SUSPIcion and disdain in state officials, has seen his image evolve into that of likable Ã£ maverick. But his operation is hardly immune from complaints. Former Horizon parent Linda Hogge quit the school in frustration over the slow arrival of instructional materials and an unsatisfactory education specialist. "All she did was record the attendance, and boom, she was gone. My understanding was that she would meet with us once a month, with one hour for each child. I have two kids, and we met for maybe 45 minutes total.
"There was no real accountability," added Hogge. "All she took notes on was what I told her. She didn't see the kids' work. The only record she has is what I told her from my lesson plans. And there was no feedback, nothing like, 'This looks good' or 'You're a little short in this area, and here is an idea of things you can try.'"
Hogge conceded that her experience may not be typical, and noted that Gaschler personally took her call when she complained. But she also sensed a troubling ethos among the school's parents.
"At an open house, a parent commented to me that the state's guidelines were just the state's political idea of what we should be learning. Well, I've looked at the guidelines on my own. If every child was able to have a taste of all those things, they'd be well-rounded and well-educated. Another parent said she just wanted her children to study the things they're interested in. I think that's a crime. Kids don't always know what they're going to be interested in until they're exposed to many things.
"And my first education specialist said I would find out that home school is much more laid-back than traditional school. I said, 'What do you mean by that?' I want my kids educated. My intention was to give them not just a good education but a great education."
Gaschler doesn't dodge these challenges. Part of the envelope he is pushing is that of parental choice. If parents want an untraditional curriculum or ungraded progress reports, he's prepared to authorize that. He'll also respect parents' concerns for privacy if they don't want certain academic or personal information forwarded to other schools, a practice other schools have complained about. Gaschler insisted that he keeps more records on students than the typical school district -- he has to, he said, because his attendance claim is based on work accomplished and not seat time. If need be, he said, bring on the auditors.
El Dorado County Superintendent Vicki Barber, a tireless Horizon critic, said she can cite example after example of students who got good grades for virtually no work and who learned little during their time in Horizon. Gaschler responded with counterexamples, including the Roundtree family, which graduated two sons from high school early under Horizon. The older son has gone on to excel both at junior college and in the engineering program at Cal State Sacramento. Parent Anne Roundtree pleaded guilty to preferring methods that some educators would consider lax. She disliked giving her six children tests, for example, or formal grades.
"I found out they learn more when they're happy and follow their interests," said Roundtree, adding, "I felt fully qualified to teach them, because I'm their mother, and I love them more than anyone ever could. And I know their needs and their style of learning."
CHARTER SCHOOLS HAVE ENCOUNtered steady resistance from the educational bureaucracy, including teacher unions and numerous district officials. And charter operators complain that they've had to engage a constant battle against legislative rear-guard actions that would either put them out of business or re-regulate their schools to the point that charter schools would differ little from regular ones.