Photos by Scott Buschman
It’s a beautiful spring day, and students have just finished final exams. School’s out, but many choose to hang around. Some go to a computer lab for tutoring. Others are happily tap-dancing. Still others de-stress in a yoga class.
There’s a unique vibe at Helix Charter High School in La Mesa, San Diego County. Most of the 2,400 students are not just “doing time.” They are active participants in their own learning.
In 1998, Helix became the first comprehensive high school in the state to convert to a charter high school. Teachers, education support professionals and administrators formed their own independent charter school, although they still contract with Grossmont Union High School District to provide services for students with special needs. Some educators chose to leave after the switch because they lost transfer rights, but most opted to stay and are glad they did.
“We’ve been union since Day 1,” says Ben Stone, a social studies teacher and president of the Helix Teachers Association. “Many people are surprised that we created a union, but it’s worked out well.”
Helix staff changed the school calendar, went to a quarterly system and tweaked the schedule. Educators were able to create their own curriculum, which includes a freshman “skills class” to ease the transition between eighth and ninth grades, and a weekly advisory class. D’s were eliminated; students were told they better earn at least a C because colleges don’t accept F’s. Graduation requirements changed: Nobody walks across the stage without completing 40 hours of community volunteer work and a 20-hour senior project of their choosing where they must apply real-world skills, make a formal presentation and write a lengthy research paper.
The school has four grade-level vice principals and a CEO instead of a principal. There’s a waiting list to enroll, and a lottery determines who gets in. Eighty-one percent of the population consists of students of color, and there is a 90 percent graduation rate.
Funding flexibility has allowed the school to buy laptops for students, and Helix is halfway toward that goal.
A nine-member Charter Governing Board, consisting of parents, staff, community members and a student, makes policy decisions. Meetings are open to the public.
“That way we avoid corruption,” says Stone. “For example, when our union sits down to do our negotiations with the front office, the CEO shows us the books and where the money is going. A totally open budget committee of certificated employees, classified employees, administrators and community members oversees the budget, and if anyone wants to see it, they can.”
The school is funded by grants and receives state funding, he adds.
“We are not funded by billionaires; we are funded by ‘thousandaires’ and public money,” says Stone. “So we are beholden to nobody. The only people we are beholden to are your typical stakeholders: parents, students and the state Education Code.”
Political science teacher and bargaining chair John Geary, who has been at the school since the conversion, lauds the environment of mutual respect. He says that during negotiations, union members and administrators treat each other politely, and he’s never seen a shouting match.
“We’re on the up and up,” he says proudly.
English teacher Alicia Gibson taught at a non-union charter before Helix. She says there’s no comparison.
“We all have input here on how we run the school. We are all working together so our students can be successful.”
Follow the links below to see the other parts of this feature story.
Let’s Be Clear About Charter Schools
Helix Charter: Transparency Keeps Things Real
K12: Not Making the Grade
Alliance: Organizing to Have a Say
Rocketship: Failing Their Students, Educators
Livermore: A Cautionary Tale
Celerity: The Opposite of Austerity
Follow the Money
Advocating for Transparency, Accountability and Equal Access