A new school or back to the drawing board?

New Kids Unlimited charter school goes to a vote tonight
The Medford School Board held a study session in Kids Unlimited on April 8. The board will vote tonight on a proposed K-8 charter school at the Medford facility.Bob Pennell

The Medford School Board will vote today on whether to approve Kids Unlimited's modified application to create the district's third charter school.

As it looks now, the revised proposal is for 150 first- through third-graders to start the 2013-14 school year at an expanded Kids Unlimited facility at 821 N. Riverside Ave.

VIBES Public Charter School timeline

2011: Kids Unlimited receives an Oregon Department of Education grant to prepare an application for a charter school. A proposal for a middle school is deemed incomplete by the Medford School District.

2011-12: Kids Unlimited Director Tom Cole visits charter schools around the country and decides benchmarks to success start earlier than middle school.

Sept. 4, 2012: Original proposal for an eventual K-8 charter school is submitted to the Medford School District.

Dec. 5, 2012: Proposal is revised to incorporate information requested by the school district.

Jan. 10, 2013: Proposal is deemed complete and scheduled to be discussed at school board meetings.

March 11, 2013: Public hearing is held on the proposal.

April 8, 2013: School board and Kids Unlimited board meet at Kids Unlimited to discuss concerns about enrollment size and facility renovations.

April 10, 2013: School Board Chairman Jeff Thomas meets with Cole and other Kids Unlimited staff to discuss changes.

April 15, 2013: The school board will vote on whether to approve the VIBES charter.

Aug. 4, 2013: If approved, this is the deadline for securing a suitable, safe facility

Sept. 4, 2013: First day of school for district schools

— Source: Tom Cole, Kids Unlimited, and the Medford School District

If the school board approves the proposal, Superintendent Phil Long could begin charter negotiations.

The Kids Unlimited board would have until July to prove it can provide a secure, safe facility. If this and other requirements are met, school doors could open Sept. 4, along with other district schools.

VIBES Public Charter School: Academy of the Arts and Sciences, as it could be called, would offer an extended day for students from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with three meals each day. The school would also utilize community partnerships to work with families of high-risk students.

VIBES is an acronym for "Vitality in Becoming Educated Socially," a long-standing mission of Kids Unlimited, an after-school program that began with a $500 grant 15 years ago.

It is now the largest youth-serving organization in the area, providing tutoring at five district schools as well as elementary- and middle-school summer camps and community programs.

In 2005, Kids Unlimited opened its current facility in a converted bowling alley.

"A permanent building was a milestone," says Tom Cole, Kids Unlimited founder and director. "The next milestone is a charter school. Kids are empowered by their opportunities. We create opportunities for learning."

The scope of the public charter school has changed dramatically since Cole received approval in early 2011 from the Oregon Department of Education to present a proposal.

That year, Kids Unlimited applied to establish a middle school.

When the Medford School Board said the application was incomplete, "we went back to the drawing board," says Cole. "We looked at all we have learned over the years, the good, the bad; the kids we've lost and the kids who have been successful."

After spending more than a year researching federal Department of Education Promise Neighborhoods and touring successful charter schools around the country, Kids Unlimited broadened the scope from a middle school to a K-8 school with as many as 300 students.

"We realized we needed to look at developing early childhood partnerships for children living in poverty and English as a Second Language students," says Cole.

A 98-page proposal was submitted in September 2012 that detailed the curriculum, target population, staff, budget and fundraising efforts. The school would begin offering grades K-5, and then add grade levels.

After three revisions, the proposal was deemed complete in January and scheduled to be discussed at School Board meetings.

An overflow crowd attended a public hearing on March 11 to voice opinions.

Some School Board members and residents stated concerns that the school could deplete resources, including Title 1 federal funding, from existing district schools.

One week before tonight's vote, School Board members met at the Kids Unlimited facility so members of both boards could clarify plans and speak about concerns.

School Board members wondered whether the proposed charter school could immediately educate 300 students and how the existing 34,000-square-foot facility could be ready to open its doors Sept. 4.

Where would playgrounds for students of different ages be located, asked school board member Sally Killen.

That night, the Kids Unlimited board recognized it needed to grow into the school it wants to become, says Cole.

Over the next few days, discussions continued, and on Thursday, April 11, Cole said in an interview that the School Board would vote tonight on a charter school for 150 first- through third-graders.

Scheduled to be shown tonight will be renderings of an expanded Kids Unlimited facility, with a new, 5,000-square-foot building on adjacent Austin Street. New structures would connect the two buildings, and the drawings show a grass lawn with play equipment.

If approved, the public charter school would be open to any first- through third-grade student, even those living outside Medford. If more than 150 students apply, there could be a lottery.

On Thursday, School Board Chairman Jeff Thomas said that after asking a lot of tough questions, he's "extremely positive that we have come up with the beginning of a successful charter."

He added that he has only one vote and he doesn't know what other board members have decided.

That said, he says, "I'm excited about the possibilities of the district partnering with Kids Unlimited to offer more opportunities for the kids."



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