Take the long view

Kids Unlimited's proposed charter school offers a real choice for at-risk students

Tom Cole says he hopes Medford School Board members can look beyond financial concerns when they decide whether to approve a new charter school operated by Cole's Kids Unlimited organization. We hope so, too.

The proposed charter school, to be called VIBES, would initially accept 300 students from kindergarten through fifth grade, expanding by one grade per year until reaching a maximum 450 students in grades K-8. The school would focus its efforts on the same low-income, at-risk population served by Kids Unlimited's after-school and other programs.

Oregon allows charter schools to operate using state education funding with the permission of the local school district. Charter schools receive at least 80 percent of state per-student funding, with the rest going to the district to compensate for administration and oversight expenses.

The financial impact on the district is significant, and should not be dismissed. At the same time, charter schools offer the opportunity to meet the needs of students who may not thrive in a traditional school setting.

VIBES would be the third charter school in the Medford district. Logos is designed for children who are being home-schooled, while Madrone Trail follows the Waldorf education model.

VIBES proposes a longer school day, running from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and serving all three meals to students. It would offer 186 instructional days — 16 more days than the rest of the district — and 27 fewer early-release days. School staff would develop community partnerships to work with families of high-risk students.

That intensive focus, combined with the solid nutrition needed to fuel young learners, is the right approach. Kids Unlimited has a solid track record of successfully working with the target population, growing from a single after-school program 15 years ago to six sites and an annual budget of $1.5 million. The Kids Unlimited facility, converted from the former Medford Lanes bowling alley on North Riverside Avenue, sits in what has historically been the lowest-income census tract in the county.

Medford School Board members have expressed concern about the school depleting resources from the district at large, and questioned whether the building is large enough to accommodate 300 students. Cole responds that the space will be adequate, and his staff is confident they can acquire nearby buildings should more space be needed in the future.

If the board is concerned about the district's low graduation rate — one of the items members used to rank Superintendent Phil Long on a recent performeance review — members should consider that the very students VIBES seeks to attract are among those most likely to drop out.

Assuming the space question can be addressed to the board's satisfaction, board members should look beyond the immediate financial impact and consider the long-term benefit to the district.

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