Groundswell of support for proposed magnet school: Board also approves cash incentive for boosting attendance |

Groundswell of support for proposed magnet school: Board also approves cash incentive for boosting attendance

William Ferchland

Two unanimous votes changed the look of kindergarten and high school for the 2005-06 school year in Lake Tahoe Unified School District by installing day care for the youngsters and an expansion of alternative education for teenagers.

Another unanimous vote created the possibility of a financial windfall for schools that boost attendance rates. Add the well-received response to a proposed environmental science magnet school at the closed Meyers Elementary site and it was not surprising one enthused parent joked that he wanted to frame Tuesday’s meeting agenda.

Those who desire change and increased options in Lake Tahoe Unified could look to Tuesday’s school board meeting as a sign the district is headed in a new direction for the 2005-06 school year.

Environmental science school

Six rows of chairs were assembled for the audience which appeared mostly for the Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School study session, headed by Superintendent James Tarwater. Not even a month into his new post, Tarwater received accolades from parents and teachers pushing for the proposed prekindergarten to fifth-grade school that would initially house 180 students selected by a random lottery.

The board will convene July 19 at 6 p.m. at the district office to officially vote on adopting the magnet school for a September opening.

South Tahoe Middle School teacher Lyn Twitchell had some reservations regarding finances and diversity.

Money will come from the developer fee fund, which can be used only for district expansion or reconstruction. The district has a little more than $1 million in its developer fee fund which can be used for building modifications, computers, classroom furnishings and other items.

Tarwater wasn’t much concerned with the $107,000 from the general fund that would be used for support staff. A believer in the “Field of Dreams” mantra of “If you build it, they will come,” Tarwater believes the money will be recouped by luring students back into the district.

As for diversity, Wendy David, the school board’s president, said the lottery would be open to all students in the district with school transportation available. Applications for the lottery will be in both English and Spanish.

Twitchell was undeterred, believing parents who enter their children in the lottery will be from a certain segment of the population.

“I just don’t think you’re going to get a good representation” of the community, Twitchell said.

Board member Barbara Bannar said diversity at the Meyers school, before it was closed for the 2005-06 school year because of budget cuts, was nonexistent with Caucasian students consisting of more than 90 percent of the school’s population.

On Wednesday, Tarwater said the district office received 10 phone calls from parents with children outside the district. One was from Placerville, he said.

Facilities Manager Steve Morales said the site, modernized the year before it closed, is almost ready to go.

“The school is in excellent condition,” Morales said. “Obviously it has been closed for a year, however it’s clear we’ve maintained it throughout the year. The largest obstacle we will have in reopening the school is the redistribution of materials and equipment.”

He emphasized the environmental science magnet school wouldn’t take away attention from the three other elementary sites. It would likely make the other sites better, Tarwater said, since the magnet school would alleviate crowding.

And more room would provide the space needed for day care for kindergarten students, Tarwater said.

Since the district has half-day kindergarten at each elementary site, day care, at a fee, would be provided to students either in the morning or afternoon, depending on when their class takes place.

The preliminary cost is $10 a day or $50 per week. At least two more employees would be hired, at a minimum of $81 per day, to help keep the teacher-student ratio at 1-to-12. The program is designed to assist working parents, thus will run from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tarwater said.

The expansion of the alternative education program at South Tahoe High School involves hiring a full-time coordinator and counselor.

Susan Baker, a teacher for the alternative education program and part-time coordinator, was tapped for the full-time coordinator role.

Cash for attendance

An attendance incentive program also was approved by the board. Only 92.7 percent of the district’s 4,771 students enrolled last school year attended school, which equates to each student in the district missing 13 days of school.

And since the state funds districts on school attendance rates at $5,106 per student, Lake Tahoe Unified feels it’s missing out on money. Officials also think schools will get behind the program since revenues from attendance increases will be split 50-50 between the schools and district.

Last school year, the middle school had the best average student attendance with 94.6 percent while the high school had the worst at 91.1 percent.

The goal over three years is to raise the district attendance level to 97 percent. The monetary difference between the 92.7 percent mark and 97 percent is $1 million.

Each school site would be responsible for creating its own incentive plan, Tarwater said.

The district has languished with low attendance rates. Tarwater and board members believe that will change with the monetary reward.

“I see it as a cultural thing,” Tarwater said. “You can’t afford to have 93 percent.”

– E-mail William Ferchland at

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