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Ripon Unified School District may partner with virtual charter school
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Bill Crockett, principal of the Capistrano virtual academy charter school in Visalia, presents his experiences to the Ripon Unified School District Board of Directors Monday night. - photo by GLENN KAHL

RIPON — The Central California Connections Academy – a virtual charter school – presented information Monday night to the Ripon Unified School District board about forming a partnership to meet the needs of students online who might otherwise drop out of the educational system.

It would be a free online public school that students from kindergarten through the 12th grade can attend from home at no cost to the Ripon school district.  In fact one percent of its average daily attendance funds paid by the state will support Ripon schools for its integral part. 

The Ripon district would be the “authorizing authority” for the charter servicing some eight counties in the Central Valley from Sacramento on the north to Alameda on the west and touching foothill communities as well as to the south.   Each county touching Ripon’s parent San Joaquin County borders would become part of the new online academy.

Donna Hutchison, serving as a spokesman for the new educational system, said there is a definite demand for the virtual school teaching life lessons with certificated instructors on line with headsets ready for face-to-face instruction.  California Connections has already received more than 4,000 requests from parents in the eight counties including 11 from the Ripon community. 

She said their program is a nice match with the Ripon educational system because of the high quality learning experience that has been long established along with the level of technology provided for the students in the community.

Other educators speaking in favor of the Connections Academy were Rob Hudson, superintendent of the Alpaugh Unified School District in Tulare County and Bill Crocket principal of the Capistrano program in Visalia.

“Alpaugh is better because of them and they are better because of us,” Hudson said.

The superintendent explained that their state charter is independent of his school district as will be the case in Ripon where it will have its own separate board of trustees. 

Tim Batnik, Capistrano Connections Academy board chairman, said their program was launched in 2004 and renewed in 2009 with an average API score of 728.  “It’s good and it’s good for the kids,” he stressed.

He further explained that 80 percent of the students joining the program weren’t already served by his traditional school district in the first place. 

Ripon Unified was charter school’s first choice

Ripon Superintendent of Schools Louise Johnson said that the Connections Academy picked Ripon schools as their first choice for an authorizing authority to serve the eight surrounding counties. She said there were a number of reasons for their choice including high academics and the high level of technology in the schools.

“We have few alternatives for kids outside the mold,” Johnson said.  “We have so many who fall through the cracks.  We already lose students to other charter schools.”

Johnson added, “This educational model is different than anything I have seen in virtual education.”

Batnik assured the Ripon board Monday night that this program is not a cake walk, but rather a rigorous educational operation with teachers checking on students each and every day.  He added that the few students who opt into the program just to stay home soon find it not to be an easy alternative to their traditional school.

The board president noted that Connections has a system in place with layers and layers of safety nets to insure the successes of its students preventing them from dropping out.  The Capistrano program has been in operation for six years graduating 88 students this past June. 

The Connections Academy education system is funded through the traditional state (ADA) or average daily attendance coordinated with an independent study discipline.  It is expected that the program could eventually grow to cover an area with 8.5 million people with 2,000 to 3,000 students.

Ripon Unified would receive one percent of the state’s ADA funds or as much as $50,000 in time.  It is seen as a way to bring in additional funding for the district after it lost so much of the budget to cost cutting measures mandated by the State of California.

Ripon’s superintendent of schools went on to say that the district won’t have to hire additional staff to run the program with minimum requirements on district administrators to oversee the program – only looking at their adopted budget, viewing financial reports  and a visit to the school once a year.

The proposed virtual academy expects some 200 students to be involved in the 2012-2013 school year with eventual growth to more than 800 students.  The ratio of students to a teacher would be 25 to 1 with the possible leasing of a classroom from the Ripon district to be paid out of ADA funds – no cost to Ripon schools.

Wage scale for teachers comparable

Hutchison said the wage scale for teachers would be comparable to the surrounding market.  “We want to make sure they are the best,” she said.  Crockett, the Visalia principal, added that Connections Academy is also a pioneer in online speech pathology.

It was also noted by visiting educators that the program addresses the needs of talented and gifted students and would follow the Ripon school calendar to stay on track with teachers, parents and siblings attending traditional public schools.

Johnson said she expects to see the charter application come before the Ripon Board of Trustees at the December 5 meeting.  And, with its approval,  it should be on its way to the state early in 2012 setting the stage for the beginning of the Central Valley Connections Academy in the fall of 2012 to include college prep classes.

For more information call Donna Hutchison at (208) 794-2974 or go online to  Hutchison said the 4,000 parents that have already shown an interest were actually searching out the virtual school program online.

The school is now required to have signatures from 50 percent of the interested parents to go on a petition and included with the application to the state and supporters will be busy in that collection process.