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Mills Receives Grant for Oakland Charter School

Mills has been awarded a startup grant to start a public charter high school.

The award, $405,000 from the California Department of Education, is the first major step toward creating the Mills Expeditionary Learning Academy, or MELA.

The proposal was written by Romeo Garcia, a Mills administrator, alum, and student. Garcia is director of the Mills TRiO programs, a group of federally-sponsored programs, including Upward Bound and Educational Talent Search, working with exceptional high school students.

“The opportunity is to create an environment where kids can flourish,” Garcia said.

Laura Flaxman, who co-wrote the proposal, first contacted Garcia with the idea of starting the school together after working with him when she was principal at Oakland’s Life Academy.

“The idea is to create an exemplary learning environment that demonstrates that these Oakland kids, that people have such low expectations of, can really succeed,” she said.

A partnership between the College, TRiO programs and Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, the mission of the school is to “empower students with the skills to pursue higher education and become leaders in the world, as well as to provide an environment for developing leaders in education.”

Hoping to fill a growing void in Oakland’s public education system, the school is scheduled to open in the fall of 2006 and intends to enroll primarily low-income, first generation college-bound students from throughout the Oakland community. To start, the school will have 100 students, split between 9th and 10th grade and selected by lottery after an application process. The goal is 50 students in each incoming class thereafter, for a total student body of 200 by the time the 10th graders get to graduation.

“I think it’s good to start small and have the community be a part of the development,” Garcia said of starting with only freshmen and sophomores.

The school’s location has yet to be determined. “The initial goal was to have it on campus,” Garcia said, “but it’s important that space is adequate.” Excited about the opportunity to apply resources “outside the gates,” Garcia said he is eager to show that “public education can work any place if you do it right,” and hopes to be a model for the potential of Oakland’s public education.

Garcia said the grant is part of an $80 million initiative California has for the charter school system.

California’s Department of Education defines a charter school as, “Public schools that may provide instruction in any of grades K-12 that are created or organized by a group of teachers, parents, community leaders or a community-based organization.” Charter schools are generally exempt from most laws governing school districts, except for specific areas.

“Operating independent of the system provides more flexibility to be creative,” Garcia said, “and maintain higher standards.” The focus of the school will be “college prep with experiential education.”

From 2001-04, California received $70 million in federal Public Charter School Grant Program funding. There were 170,000 K-12 students enrolled in the 471 charter schools operating in California for the 2003/2004 school year. Of the state’s 58 counties, 47 have charter schools.

Distinguished visiting professor Delaine Eastin, the former state superintendent of education, said she is excited about the new project. Eastin wrote a letter of support for the grant proposal, and encouraged Garcia to try for the startup/planning grant, rather than the implementation grant.

“Across the country,” Eastin said, “a leading cry has been, ‘What are we going to do about our high schools?’” While California’s charter schools have had their ups and downs, she said, “the successful ones have had a visionary mission.”

“Romeo has that vision,” she said.

“I’m proud of Mills for supporting him,” Eastin said, adding that she came to Mills because of its commitment to the education department. “People think education is easy to do because everybody went to school. He has real experience helping students with educational challenges, and a real sense of what needs to happen for the system to improve.”

One-third of high school students never make it to graduation, she said. In this high-tech age “It’s a formula for disaster.”

Provost and Dean of Faculty Mary-Ann Milford said, “There will be an opportunity for some of our faculty to participate

Garcia first came to Mills in 1983, to earn his teaching degree. He has since earned his Master’s degree here, and is currently enrolled in the doctorate of education program. His tenure at Mills also included a 4-year stint as President Janet Holmgren’s assistant. Raised in Oakland and a product of its public schools, Garcia originally intended to be an Oakland principal, but said he changed his mind because he “didn’t think the system would allow me to do the things I wanted to do,” being focused more around administration than education.

“One of the most exciting things about it,” Flaxman said, “is that California is a little bit of an uneducated wasteland in comparison to other areas of the country. We want to change that.”