Everything (nearly) you wanted to know
Over the past few years, I have had numerous occasions to explain what our school hopes to accomplish and have talked to many parents about this experience. For the most part, when we first try to explain how our school works, we get confused stares and many questions. We’re not a private school, we’re not a home-school and we’re not a traditional school. What are we? I thought you might find listening in on a (hypothetical) discussion about the school useful in helping you understand what we are all about.
Are you a homeschool program?
No. Because the student is not in classes every day of the week, we are by law defined as an “independent study” school. In California, there are really just two types of public schools. A traditional school requires a certain number of minutes for students to be in their seats. Any school not meeting those minutes of “seat time” is required to fit under the “Independent Study” provisions of the California Education Code (Ed. Code.)
We are a Public School where the teachers teach, grade homework, test and give credits for the student’s work, but allow students to take some courses by independent study. Parents are not home-schooling their students except as they wish to enhance the student’s curriculum and experiences. The teacher credentialed in the subject evaluates the work for those subjects done by independent study. The parents do not issue grades.
What classes are taken through independent study?
Because of how we report our attendence to the State, we only claim attendance on courses that are taught on campus. However, students do take classes such as P.E., health, and music independently. Those classes are graded Pass/Fail and earn 5 credits per semester. Each one has specific guidelines, including turning in a log of activities and several assignments.
Can you just teach what you want, or do the students in your school have specific curriculum that you have to use?
Our Charter and educational philosophy requires us to align our curriculum with the California Content Standards. These are very specific and are what the State Testing (STAR) evaluates as well and are the basis for all of the education in California Schools. How we teach is up to us, what we use for textbooks are somewhat flexible, as long as we teach the content in the Standards.
In addition to the State Standards, we place high emphasis on University preparation. For example, students take algebra in high school because it is required for graduation. However, Algebra taught to meet the algebra framework is very different in emphasis to algebra designed to prepare students for Algebra 2 and higher math. We teach with the emphasis on preparing for higher level courses. We chose our texts and curriculum to best fit our overall purpose of preparing students for college.
Are you accredited?
We have a received a full six-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the major accrediting agency for all public and private schools in the western United States. Six -year accreditaions the highest possible and are rarely granted. We are very proud of our staff, students, and program.
Our API (academic performance index) last year was 938 for our Jr. High program and 860 for our High School program. In addition, our courses meet the entrance requirements of the University of California.
Do you use curriculum that is the same as we would see in a traditional school?
No and Yes. Some of the texts are the same, but because of our unique format, many of the texts are only used as a supplement to the learning. Most texts are written for a five day a week format and we only have two days. Because of this, we use many college texts which are designed for our format. Our teachers are good at what they do and all have expertise in their subject matter to a high degree. We (the teachers) choreograph our curriculum to fit our students and our format. None of our teachers use pre-made curriculum exclusively.
Can your students take college courses or R.O.P. courses ?
Many of our students take college classes while they are in high school. In fact, we highly recommend that students take as many Junior College courses as they can. University entrance requirements vary from school to school, but the general rule is that students ought to complete the University of California (a-g) subject requirements as well as several advanced courses. We work closely with Folsom Lake College to help students enroll in courses that will help them to be competitive in the college application process. Students receive high school credits, as well as college units for courses taken at the junior college.
Regional Occupation Program (R.O.P.) is a vocational program available to every student in the county. Many of our students take R.O.P. classes. The most popular amongs our students are: Digital Media Production, Graphic Design, Drafting and Culinary Arts. These courses count towards high school graduation as well as giving students a great, practical, foundation in those areas.
How do you fit the curriculum to your students?
In a traditional school, most of the learning takes place in the classroom. Experienced teachers will tell you that homework is important, but in many cases, it is impossible to expect that all of the students will actually do it. Therefore, homework often becomes a supplement and not really a requirement in a traditional setting.
We design our curriculum to maximize teaching in the classroom and learning at home. That is why when you come to our classes, you will see a variety of teaching styles, but primarily, you will see the students taking notes and participating in conversations directly related to the topic. There is very little time given in class to do homework and worksheets. The homework is designed to enhance and continue the learning. It is essential, not just supplemental.
How do students perform who don't have parents support thier learning at home, or who have other issues that take priority away from schoolwork once they leave campus?
Under California law, participation in an independent study program requires that the students successfully complete their assignments. If a student cannot succeed in an independent study program, he/she must be enrolled in a full time day program. Students who do not complete the equivalent of five days work in a semester must have a formal evaluation as to whether independent study is an appropriate placement for them. We refer students unable to succeed in our program to another of our County Office of Education programs or to the school in their district of residence.
What is your process for helping struggling students?
First, we do our best to explain how our system works and what will be required ahead of time, before a student signs up with us. We recognize that we are not a fit for everyone. Sometimes parents and students are attracted to our program without understanding the commitment it entails. Because we don’t want to see anyone fail, we interview each student and family before they are enrolled to help them decide if we would be a good fit for them.
Our support system is similar to a college. We encourage study groups, staff a study hall throughout the week and offer help from teachers by appointment. If a student is enrolled and cannot achieve, we will modify their schedule to take fewer core classes, or classes at a lower level so that they have the maximum opportunity to succeed. We will not allow a student to stay in a class that they are unable to succeed in.
What is considered a "passing" grade?
We consider a minimum grade a "C". Students can receive high school credits for a "D" grade, but the student will not be able to continue the next semester's class or advance to the next level without retaking the class.
On the other hand, it makes no sense for a student to be earning C's in High School. Most universities require a minimum of a B/B+ average just to apply. If a student cannot earn A's and B's in an independent study environment, they should be taking classes on a traditional schedule where they will have more repetition of the material and structure.
Do many students have to drop out?
No, in fact, very few. The College and University systems we are all familiar with have operated on the same model we use for two centuries. In many countries, and in the U.S. in earlier times, students entered colleges in their mid teens. There is nothing intrinsic about being a certain age that makes you ready to do this type of schoolwork. What is more important than age is dedication. Our system is not difficult, but it does require a student to become responsible to learn and develop a desire to want to know. Much of what we do, especially in the 7th and 8th grades, goes towards helping students with study and organizational skills.
We have found that 90-95% of the students who join us are able to do very well in this environment. The main two causes for students to not do well are 1) they are not prepared for the level of work required or 2) they do not have a real desire to go to college so they are not committed to preparing for higher level courses in English, Math, Foreign Languages and Science.
Why do you focus on University Prep. rather than general education?
Our program requires that a student develop the desire to learn, not just complete assignments. When a student is preparing for College, rather than preparing for High School graduation, they are acknowledging that their education is extremely important. The upward push from like-minded students challenge all of the students to work to a higher standard than “average.” A sure way to kill a class is to have students present who do not desire to be there. To the extent that everyone in a class wants to be there, is prepared for the level of work, and desires to learn, the class is successful.
As I mentioned earlier, our program is not for everyone. If we place students in class twice weekly without requiring them to develop intellectual curiosity and discipline, they will not learn much of anything. We will not "enable" students to be adequate.
How do your classes compare academically with other High Schools?
I wouldn’t say that our classes are harder or easier than typical advanced or honors courses elsewhere. We do, however, put a great emphasis on teaching higher level thinking skills. We avoid and abhor busywork. Many of our students have left us after junior high to go to a comprehensive high school in order to play sports, get a more vocational education, or be involved in activities that we do not offer. Our students do very well at the comprehensive schools. The local high schools find that our students are usually at the top of their classes. We have a different emphasis, but do not stray very far from college prep and state standards.
We also get transfer students from those high schools. We are very careful to place them in appropriate classes because our courses are often ahead. Many of our students take advanced classes in junior college during their junior and senior years.
Ultimately, do your students get accepted at quality Universities, and once there, how does it work out?
We currently have alumni at many of the University of California Campuses, (Berkeley,San Diego, Santa Barbara, Davis and Santa Cruz), as well as private universities such as Point Loma and The University of Chicago. Our students are accepted at a very high rate and our top students are competitive anywhere. We find that they have a distinct advantage in their application process because they have been able to take several college courses while still in high school. Our University Students find that because they have been going to school taking classes twice weekly for several years, it is an easy transition to the University system.This past year, over 42% of our seniors were accepted at Major universities, including several with full-ride academic scholarships.
We also have outstanding students who go to Junior College with the intent to transfer. This route really makes sense if a student graduates high school at a very young age, or if they want to save money by living at home their first two years of college. Generally, our students get A’s at their Junior College classes that they take.
Some of our students go on to technical schools, private colleges, and the armed forces as well. Ultimately, there is no typical graduate and we are proud of all of our students.
On a personal, yet also school note, my three daughters came through our program. The eldest graduated with high honors double majoring in English and Ethnomusicology at UC Santa Barbara. She is currently a Ph.D Ethnomusicology student on a full scholarship at the University of Chicago, arguably one of the top Universities in the country. My second daughter graduated with a Japanese/Global Studies double major at UC Santa Barbara, spending a year in Japan at Doshisha University in Kyoto. She is now teaching college English at United International University in China. My youngest daughter is attending the University of the Pacific with a full academic scholarship in Political Science. Every one of our staff with school age students have chosen to have thier students come through our program.
How qualified is your staff?
The very foundation of our program requires that teachers be experts in their subject areas, not just able to follow a pre-made curriculum. We have carefully recruited teachers with experience and a proven ability to develop curriculum and teach in this type of format. Our French, Latin and Drama teacher has worked around the world recieving his advanced degree in French Literature from the University of Paris, our Biology teacher taught for over 30 years at Ponderosa High School and is considered the top science teacher in the county. Our Spanish teacher, originally from Latin America recieved her Master's degree in Spanish from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Our Physics and Math Teacher earned her Chemistry degree from UC Davis. The list goes on. We are committed to bringing our students the very best educational instruction possible.
What is your background (Mr. Harris) and how did this program start?
I earned a B.S. degree in Physics and a B.A. in Geological Sciences and teaching credential from UC Santa Barbara. I have a Master's degree in Education Administration and Supervision. I taught High School at Truckee High School for 4 years, then 8th grade science at Sierra Ridge middle school for 7 years. We home-schooled our own children and, after adopting two special needs kids, I needed more flexibility in my schedule, so I transferred to Horizon Charter School to work full-time with home schooled families.
I saw that home school students were not being prepared for Universitly level study. Normally, they would just "graduate" at age 16 and start taking Junior College courses. In 1999, Horizon allowed me to begin a college preparation program for home schooled students where we held classes twice weekly. Our program was very successfull and quickly outgrew our facility. In 2003, state law was changed and Horizon was no longer allowed to offer classes outside of their county of origin (Placer County.) We applied for a Charter with El Dorado County Office of Education and ultimately joined Charter Community School as one of their programs. This year will be our 10th graduating class.
How does your school deal with the emphasis on State Standards driving education in California?
Since the dawn of man, people have been teaching other people. Usually, there is a goal in mind on what one would want the learner to accomplish. The State Standards and Testing are really just about holding schools accountable. From a school perspective, we make sure that our classes cover the content in the Standards. However, we do not "teach to the test." . Our Algebra class is designed to prepare students for Advanced Algebra 2, our Advanced Algebra 2 class prepares students for Pre-Calculus, our Pre-Calculus prepares students for college Calculus. The same pattern is true for all of our courses - we are preparing students for higher learning. By doing so, our courses exceed the state standards.
On a student level, there is pressure to achieve in a testing format. Not everyone tests well, but if a student knows the material, he or she will at least test adequately. If a student has good reading comprehension, good writing skills, can articulate ideas on paper, can do the types of problems covered in math and science classes, understands history and how it relates to the present, he will certainly have nothing to fear from testing. If a student is lacking in any of these skills, they need to improve if they wish to do better in school.
Testing is a good indicator of where students are, nothing more. Overall, if our students do well on testing it is a good indicator that we are doing our job. We do not teach to the tests and do not concern ourselves over students missing questions that we have not yet covered. Most of our students score well above the state average on the STAR tests. We have detailed reports of our student scores posted on our website.
Do you offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes?
At the larger comprehensive high schools in our county, you will hear students talking about their AP (Advanced Placement) courses. Advanced Placement courses are very specific classes which have been designed to be equivalent to semester college courses, yet are done in high school over a one year period. In May, the students take a three hour exam which is scored from 1 to 5. Students receiving a 4 or 5 will earn an equivalent of one semester’s credit from the College Board that will transfer to most colleges. In a few subjects, a score of 3 might also earn college credit.
At Smith Flat, we offer one course that is Advanced Placement, AP English Literature. We offer this course so that our Seniors can take both a college level English Literature course here at the same time they take an English Composition class at Folsom Lake. We do not offer other AP courses because our students can take classes directly from the Junior College. College courses are generally more rigorous than AP courses because you only have one semester for the material. You are also evaluated on papers, midterms and finals in an actual college environment (and schedule) rather than on a single test in May that judges a narrow set of skills.
Why do you have students do college courses instead of AP classes like most schools do?
In traditional schools, some students do take college classes their senior year, but large schools have more restrictions in using the junior college than do schools with smaller populations like ours. In comprehensive high schools, taking AP courses has become the common way to prepare for college. In fact, many students take these courses without even taking the AP tests. The rationale is that the courses are more rigorous than traditional courses and the grades reported on the student’s transcript are “weighted” higher.
Is there a disadvantage in not using AP courses when calculating your g.p.a. for college entrance?
Normally, we think of an A average as a 4.0 g.p.a. In other words, an A is a 4, a B is a 3, etc.. In an AP or Honors course a B receives a 4 while an A receives a 5. Students who take several AP courses and do well in them can end up with g.p.a.’s in high school of 4.3 or higher.
Smith Flat operates on a non-weighted grade system. That means that a 4.0 is straight A’s. We do not give more points for AP, Honors, or college courses. Many schools function like we do, but those offering a lot of AP or Honors courses usually go with a weighted system so that they can more clearly differentiate the academic achievement of their students. A student taking shop electives and getting all A’s would have a lower g.p.a. than someone taking all college prep and AP courses. At Smith flat, all of our courses are college prep, so we don’t bother with a weighted system. This begs the question, “Won’t colleges prefer a student with a 4.2 g.p.a. over a Smith Flat student with only a 3.9 g.p.a.?”
The answer is “no.” When you apply to college, you list what courses you took and your grades and you identify whether or not your school uses “weighted” grades. The college application process is very fair and colleges understand very well the difference between AP, Honors, and actual college courses. Colleges look at the details, not the g.p.a. on your transcript. Students who have good grades and have taken several college classes are very competitive in the best colleges in the country. If you earn a 3.8 at Smith Flat in college prep courses and you also earn B’s or better in three or more actual college courses, you compete easily with someone earning a 4.1 at Union Mine or El Dorado High School who has taken AP courses.
Define a successful student at your school
I say the same answer to nearly every parent and student who are thinking of coming to this school. You will have excellent teachers, small class sizes, a very attractive schedule, really nice students to be with, and the opportunity to excel academically.
However, school has to be more than your courses. A successful student doesn’t say “cool, only two days a week.” A successful student uses their time to advantage. They must have a desire to do well. They must develop the attitude and conscience that says, "I'd rather stab myself in the foot, than not do my homework or spend enough time studying for this test." They take music lessons, participate in Karate, do a sport, are involved in vocational training, take college classes, get involved in community service, spend time with friends, and work on their relationships with their families.
There are tremendous benefits to our school. At the same time, there are costs. A successful student is one who is willing to pay the costs of study, discipline and scheduling and is also willing to take advantage of our schedule by pursuing things above and beyond school. After all, learning to do those things will set a foundation for being successful in life.