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MARIN 'LEAP OF FAITH' GETS ACADEMIC CREDS
MARIN INDEPENDENCE JOURNAL by Keri Brenner
Three years after being rebuked and denied by the San Rafael school community, two educators’ dream of running a special school with personalized learning for kids from throughout Marin has not only been realized, it has achieved mainstream recognition.
Marin’s Community School, a 57-student, seventh through 12th grade program on the campus of Marin County Office of Education in San Rafael, was granted accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges on May 9. The three-year accreditation, which is retroactive to the start of the current 2018-19 school year, can help with grants and loans and also boost kids’ resumes for possible college entrance or future careers.
“Innovation is possible within the (public school) system,” said Katy Foster, co-leader, with Erin Ashley, of Marin’s Community School. “We took a leap of faith.”
After the duo’s IPSO charter school petition was rejected in 2016 by the San Rafael City Schools district, and later by the county, the two former Tamalpais Union High School District educators were bent on seeking approval from the state. The IPSO project was turned away when San Rafael community members and SRCS staff said it would siphon off more than $1 million from the regular public schools.
But, after an offer by Mary Jane Burke, Marin County superintendent of schools, to take the existing Marin’s Community School — along with the 15-year-old Phoenix Academy charter school — under their wings and redesign it, they took a detour into what could be called a “charter hybrid,” Foster said.
“We’re both a county community school and also Phoenix Academy charter school,” she said. “We run the two programs together.” The result is a publicly financed charter-like public school collaboration for kids who need an alternative approach.
“I don’t think it’s black and white, charter school versus non-charter school,” Foster said. “It’s how do we best serve kids?”
Burke said Friday she was “thrilled” about the news of the WASC accreditation.
“This accreditation is a reflection of the dedication and vision of our staff who have worked hard to turn our school into an incredible place where all kids can get what they need to succeed,” Burke said in an email. “But this is just the beginning … we have a long way to go.”
The redesign in 2017 by Ashley and Foster changed Marin’s Community School from a way station for kids to hang out who were dismissed or who otherwise left their regular public schools to a personalized kind of school experience. Rather than discarding kids who don’t fit in or who can’t keep up, the new Marin’s Community School approach is to envelop each student with a social and career network they can use as a conduit for job shadows, internships, career advice and mentoring.
“We believe that the more students develop relationships and understand what’s possible, the more they will be empowered,” Ashley said.
On Wednesday, students attended a career event at the school to help line up summer internships. Presentations included those from a renewable energy company, College of Marin and law enforcement groups such as the Marin County Public Defender’s office.
“We do this twice a year,” said Jonathan Lucha, college and career specialist. “We had the first one last fall.” Students who are interested in summer programs in order to make up credits can attend school two days a week, while also doing an internship one day a week, he said.
Students are also plugged in with other area partners in counseling and medical groups, such as Bay Area Community Resources and Marin Community Clinics.
Instead of attempting to make up for any socioeconomic, academic or cultural deficits a student might have, teachers at the school “build on their assets,” Ashley said.
For example, projects such as creating broadcast public service announcements to air on TAY Radio, a community radio station based in the Canal area of San Rafael, are designed to enhance students’ skills in technology and encourage self-expression
“We take an asset-based approach,” she said. “We build on our students’ strengths to support their development as productive and engaged citizens.”
The seed for Foster’s and Ashley’s dream school was planted in 2014 when the two women met on a coastal Amtrak train heading back to Marin from Pasadena, where the two then-Tamalpais district educators had visited a successful career and technical high school. At the time, Foster was an assistant principal at Redwood High School in Larkspur and Ashley was a science teacher at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo.
“We were sitting on the train,” Ashley said. “And I was thinking, ‘Why can’t we have a school like this in Marin County?'”
Foster was thinking the same thing. Both wanted to close the “opportunity gap” they had seen in their classes, particularly for students of color or students who were from low-income or immigrant families. Five years later, they now say they are on the path to doing just that.
“Here’s a student who is an immigrant and separated from his family, living on his own,” Foster said. “Who are we to say to students like this, ‘You need to build resilience?’ They already have resilience.”