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Magnet school at old Meyers site?

William Ferchland

With its windows boarded, parking lot empty and halls silent, Meyers Elementary is a sad sight for many. A victim of budget cuts, the closed school represents a memory of better times and a possibility for the future.

On Tuesday the site will take center stage at a Lake Tahoe Unified School District board meeting as a proposal to turn it into an environmental science magnet school will be presented by Superintendent James Tarwater.

Not even a month into his new job, Tarwater has his intentions for change written all over Tuesday’s agenda. Besides the study session on the magnet school, is an attendance incentive plan, extended day care for kindergarten students and an expansion of alternative education at the high school level.

Board President Wendy David said the agenda is mirroring the “new direction” the district is embarking upon.

The presentation of the proposed Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School is scheduled for the first part of the 5:30 p.m. meeting.

If the board takes well to the idea, which is very likely, Tarwater will ask for a special board meeting July 19 at 6 p.m. to have the board officially vote on the proposal and get the school ready for a September opening.

The plan is for 180 students, picked by a lottery system, to be enrolled in the school in a pre-kindergarten to fifth-grade structure. The pre-kindergarten class of 30 students would be for students born between August and November who might need more time of maturation before entering kindergarten.

All classes would have 30 students except for first grade, a first and second grade combination class and second grade.

While the school would still need to teach courses such as English and math, the lean would be toward environment and technology. Grants would help that cause, along with eight teachers who have a background in environment.

Advertisements for teachers already in the district wanting to instruct at the school would fly during the summer. Carol Murdock, president of the South Tahoe Educators Association, said there are many teachers in the district with an interest in environment.

About $107,000 is needed from the general fund to pay for staff such as a school secretary, custodian and aide.

Finances to help reopen the school to an operational level would come from the developer fee fund which has a balance of $1 million, Tarwater said.

Two buses to transport students to the school are in the plans. They would be purchased though the developer fund.

The structure calls for a lead teacher, not an administrator, to help head the school. A school site council would govern the school. The council would consist of five parents, four teachers and a support staff person. Tarwater and Director of Human Resources Beth Delacour, who has a background in science, would be the district liaisons.

The proposal has many enthusiastic. For years, community groups have discussed and recommended bringing alternative education into the district.

“I think it’s really exciting,” David, board president, said. “I believe it gives our kids additional options. It may relieve some of the crowding at the other three elementary schools. … This would definitely be the first of its kind for Tahoe.”

County Superintendent of Schools Vicki Barber commended the idea for possibly luring families and students back to the district to battle declining enrollment.

Carry Loomis, a parent who helped lead a petition for a charter school at the Meyers site, applauded the possible move that she hoped would “rejuvenate” the community. Her phone was endlessly ringing Thursday morning from inquisitive parents.

“I think the district is ready,” Loomis said. “We’ve had nothing but depressing news for the last two years.”

A parent of a fifth-grader, Loomis said she would enter her child’s name in the lottery but would support the site if her child was not picked.

“I really want to help get this going,” she said.

Two petitions for a charter school at Meyers failed last year when the state decided not to provide grant funding. Magnet and charter schools differ slightly, with charter schools differing on funding sources and governing structure.

There are currently six charter schools in the county, Barber said. And while some have an education emphasis, a true magnet school in the county doesn’t exist.

Julie Butler, a parent member of the district’s program committee, hoped each school in the district could have a theme.

“This is definitely something we’re envisioning,” Butler said. “It’s happening a lot quicker than I thought but that’s great.”

The think-fast mentality was one reason why the district hired Tarwater, said board member Madeline Fernald.

One aspect of the environmental science magnet school would be more community involvement in the schools, Fernald envisioned.

One environmental heavyweight, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, supported the proposed school.

“I think there is enough out there that it would make sense to have that (kind of school) especially someplace like Tahoe where it’s so visible” said Carl Hasty, deputy director of the agency.

Tarwater has experience in establishing magnet schools. One of the schools in his former district, Ocean View in Huntington Beach, had a NASA program while another taught farming.

“What it does is it allows people options and I encourage that and if you have an interest in science, how motivating for a kid,” he said. “A diet of that will encourage them to learn.”


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