Last week, the board heard a demographer's report that said the district should consider adding two new elementary schools, with at least one, in the north side of Pleasanton, up and running by 2018.
The board put off a decision, but brought two new concepts to the floor. A magnet school and a charter school are both on the table, brought up by Board Member Joan Laursen, who noted both types of school "would draw students from across the district."
Magnet and charter schools are very different, although both allow parents to opt their children in instead of sending them to a traditional neighborhood elementary.
Magnet schools specialize in specific studies such as science, technology or the arts. Those schools began in the 1960s as a way of providing equal educational opportunities for students from all racial backgrounds. In most cases, students have to qualify to gain entry.
As of the 2010-11 school year, the last year for which figures were available, magnet programs were offered in 425 schools in the state, according to the California Department of Education. Those schools are funded the same as traditional schools, largely by the state.
Charter schools began in Minnesota in the early 1990s. California was the second state in the nation to approve legislation that authorized charter schools, which literally include a charter. As of this year, there are more than 1,000 charter schools in the state and 56 in Alameda County, including an elementary/middle school and a high school in Livermore, according to the CDE. Those schools get their funding through the state, parent contributions and private bonds and admission is based on whether space is available.
Tara Aderman is principal of the lower school, Livermore Valley Charter School, with an enrollment of about 1,100 students from transitional kindergarten to eighth grade. The nearby Livermore Valley Charter Preparatory High has an enrollment of about 500.
Aderman worked in traditional schools before moving to the charter school in Livermore. She said charter schools have freedoms that traditional schools don't have, citing a recent purchase of a math curriculum that worked for one grade but not when those students moved on to the next.
In moving to a new curriculum, Aderman said, "the switch out happened in a month and a half" -- far shorter than it would take in a traditional school system.
She said there's more parent involvement than in traditional schools.
"They get to say, 'Hey, this is what we want,'" Aderman said, adding that more often than not, they base their decisions on what teachers say is needed.
Class sizes run about 24-1 from transitional kindergarten to fourth grade and about 31-1 for fifth through eighth grade.
But charter schools are controversial. Opponents often include teachers' unions, because most are non-union, a subject Aderman weaves through cautiously, not wanting to alienate the Livermore School Board, which this year authorized the school for the first time. Previously, the school had to seek authorization from the state.
"We're building a new partnership" with the district, Aderman said. She said all of the 60 or so teachers at the school are fully credentialed.
Some studies say charter schools have a high turnover rate, largely from burnout of inexperienced teachers. Aderman said her school had a retention rate of 98%, and that she addresses burnout by being "open and honest about it," along with regular collaboration sessions with other teachers.
Students at the school include those in special education and English language learners, although state statistics show the enrollment is more than 70% white.
Aderman said students have a science lab in addition to regular science; the curriculum also includes music, art and Spanish. She said every student has his or her own set of goals, which means they might be pulled out of a particular class, and that, in turn, means fewer stigmas.
"They're hopping out of class to go to a counselor or to go to a math specialist," Aderman explained. "No child feels singled out or labeled."
After years of bursting at the seams in a former Livermore Valley elementary school, the charter school just opened at a new facility not too far from the campus of Las Positas College.
"For years and years, we looked for property, we looked for land," Aderman said. The solution turned out to be an office complex that was first identified as a potential site about two years ago.
"We went round and round about how to turn an office complex into a school," Aderman said.
The result was a school campus with a number of separate buildings that include everything from music classes for all ages -- something that was eliminated in many districts as the state budget worsened -- to video production, with a daily video bulletin produced by fifth-grade students. The school also has a fulltime math specialist and fulltime librarian.
Although it just opened, Aderman said there's already a waiting list.