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‘Sun, Moon and Stars Aligned’ for Julian Charter School in La Mesa

New K-5 campus in old Home Savings building will have 114 students when school starts Monday.

Updated at 12:42 p.m. Aug. 23, 2012

Dozens of children played on the asphalt playground, smacking a tetherball and climbing in a tot lot. Parents snacked at nearby picnic tables and roamed the bright classrooms of the converted Home Savings & Loan building on Jackson Drive.

A large glass donation jar in a greeting area was two-thirds filled with dollar bills.

Julian Charter School’s new campus in La Mesa opens Monday, serving kindergarten through fifth grade students on a four-day-a-week schedule.

One father of a kindergartner attending a back-to-school night Wednesday said he was attracted to the free school, called the Innovation Centre, because Julian Charter “has a good reputation” and was “kind of a neat opportunity.”

The opportunity includes combining home-schooling with a public school. Children stay home Fridays, said the parent and the school’s website.

An orientation was held Wednesday in the converted bank that was home to the ill-fated Day-McKellar Preparatory School and a short-lived run by San Diego jeweler Leo Hamel.

Late Wednesday night, Hamel said via email: “I closed it after the one semester. We were really just getting some of the old [Day-McKellar] school’s kids, including our own, [through] that year.  It was fun!”

Jennifer Cauzza, the school’s executive director, said Thursday that 114 students are enrolled, with the maximum class size being 24.

She said Julian Charter has a 10-year lease on the 9,600-square-foot building that once housed Barbeques Galore. Donald Dechant of La Jolla, owner of the building, “did not want to sell right now,” she said.

Why La Mesa?

Cauzza said via email: “The sun and the moon and the stars aligned.”

“In checking with the city, the facility was already zoned for a school and was pretty much ‘turn-key,’” Cauzza said. “I met Hillary [Gaddis, the school’s site coordinator] first; she told me about the breakup of Day-McKellar and the need for a program in the La Mesa area.”

The program didn’t want a K-12 site like the closed prep school, she said, “but we’ve had such success with our four-day-a-week elementary programs, we opted to replicate that program at this site with the performing arts theme.”

She the performing arts focus was chosen because Gadddis “has that passion” and Julian Charter had already started working on the 6-12 Academy of Performing Arts in Mission Valley and thought having a “feeder” program would be beneficial.

Finally, with the state’s budget cuts, Cauzza said, performing arts are often on the chopping block. 

“We felt that if we could hire a staff with that focus, we could integrate them into the general education program for ‘free,’ so to speak.  We’re also working on Project Based Learning and Centers-based instruction at this site (which is what our focus is at all of the Innovation Centre programs). 

In addition, she said, “our home-study population meets at our [San Diego] Academy site and are frustrated with the lack of space.  Our hope was that they could meet at this [La Mesa] site on Friday and have the space they needed for meetings and learning center classes—which is how the facility will be used on Fridays.

The school at 5300 Jackson Drive lists six teachers on its website, including Sarah Weaver in fifth grade, who is “overseeing an educational research project at The Scripps Research Institute that aims to train K-6 teachers in STEAM based topics.” 

STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math

JCS Innovation Centre-La Mesa, with at least a dozen sister campuses, “is dedicated to inspiring creativity, confidence and competence through artistic expression,” its web page says.

A YouTube channel highlights Julian Charter School’s field trips, camps and online tools. San Diego-based Top Notch School Lunches will cater hot meals.

Parents reviewing Julian Charter’s various sites on greatschools.org gave the program four out of five stars, with one saying of its Encinitas program: “I couldn’t be happier with their education. I count myself lucky that they have amazing teachers and are getting a well-rounded education.”

But one parent in June complained of a bullying incident on the Encinitas campus: “A lot of similar programs have a zero tolerance rule when it comes to bullying. ... In this situation the girl was allowed to continue to attend despite the fact that the majority of the families had an issue with her behavior.”

The nontraditional programs attract nontraditional families, said another comment.

Julian Charter School Murrieta High School Academy, said one comment, “is where everyone goes if they somehow didn’t make it in public school, or if their parents and/or them are very religious. We’re a school of oddballs, and we love it. If you think you’re weird—come here. Everyone else is going to be just as weird as you are, if not more so.”

Julian Charter School operates in a variety of locations, including behind a Lutheran Church and one in San Diego off University Avenue and College Avenue, at College Covenant Church.

In August 2011, parent Kim Jones of La Mesa about her happy experience with the charter school’s San Diego Academy outlet:

“Of course, no school is perfect, but this school has been a safe place for my kids to learn and grow and excel. They feel known and cared about and, most of all, their academic progress and emotional growth are healthy and, I believe, ahead of schedule. I feel so grateful to have discovered such an incredible place for my children to learn.”

In an East County Magazine report two years ago,     Executive Director Cauzza was quoted on why districts like Julian Union charter schools outside their boundaries: “A lot of motivation for them is that it generates money for their district.”

According to its petition for charter renewal (attached), Julian Charter School was established in November 1999 as a “K-12 non-classroom based charter school.”

“In 2000, the school, as a 501(c)(3) organization, incrementally began taking ownership of curriculum, instruction and assessment; finance, facilities, and business management; and organization, governance, and administration becoming a fully independent, direct funded, incorporated charter school by the 2002-2003 school year.”

A five-member charter board oversees the network of schools, including parent representatives from Riverside, Orange and San Diego counties.

According to its most recent tax filing, Julian Charter reported income of $14.1 million—all but $618,000 in government grants, It paid $9 million in salaries and benefits and had net assets of $1.67 million.

Its Form 990 filing (attached) also listed five officers—with four being paid nothing and chief educator Cauzza being paid $131,064—about the same salary of Helix Charter High School’s executive director.

Although Julian Charter School in 2010 was granted a six-year accreditation with the Western Association of Schools & Colleges, its 180-student Temecula site—also called an Innovation Centre—tried to leave the Julian Union School District for the Temecula Valley Unified School District.

Organizers wanted to call the school The Center for Innovation.

According to a North County Times report March 20, the Temecula school board voted unanimously to deny the petition of the proposed charter school—leading to groans from more than 100 parents.

Trustee Vince O'Neal was quoted as saying: “Why would this district want to destroy a school that exists in another district?’”

“After the meeting,” said the report, “many parents said they are unhappy with the Julian program and that they plan to leave, even if the new school never opens.”

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