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Race for Space 

An unorthodox school for dropout risks is still searching for a campus, leaving students in learning limbo

Wednesday, Jun 26 2002
It is a scorching June afternoon, and Wayne MacDonald, his shock of white hair blowing in the light breeze, stands in front of a vacant Bayview office park, surveying an empty building with unconcealed excitement. Of all the real estate he's looked at in the past few weeks, this building is the most ideal for the Urban Pioneer Experiential Academy, a charter school MacDonald plans to open in the fall.

Based on a program MacDonald started about 25 years ago at McAteer High, the charter school will expand on a curriculum that has been widely credited for turning around the lives of at-risk teens and high school near-dropouts through its unconventional teaching methods, which include activities like a 12-day wilderness expedition, spending two weeks on a ranch, and running ropes courses.

As MacDonald tours the cavernous Bayview building, he mentally converts the reception area into administrative offices and envisions small conference rooms as computer labs or study areas. He is excited about the building's possibilities, but he is also anxious.

After a nearly two-year battle with the San Francisco Unified School District for the charter school, MacDonald now has just two months to get the academy up and running before the first day of class. He needs to find a school site so he can begin working on other aspects of the program, like hiring more teachers. Yet sky-high rents make the Bay Area one of the most difficult places in the state for a charter school to find space. The Bayview property, too, is beyond MacDonald's price range, though he holds out hope that the owner of the building will cut him a deal.

To make matters even more pressing, if MacDonald can't find a site in time, about 90 returning Urban Pioneer students -- many of whom were on the verge of dropping out before they entered the program -- will be left in limbo, unregistered for a San Francisco school next fall.

The district simply "forgot about them," MacDonald insists, hinting at the contention he believes exists between him and the SFUSD.

But because charter schools operate with a great degree of autonomy, the district is no longer responsible for enrolling students who opt to join a charter school, district spokesperson Jackie Wright explains. "These students were already enrolled in Urban Pioneer [before it became a charter school], and ... the expectation was that these students would continue with the school," Wright says. "Unless we heard from them otherwise, there was to be no action from the district."

The situation arose primarily because of a strange convergence of circumstances: the simultaneous closing of McAteer High and Urban Pioneer's transition to a charter school. The shuttering of McAteer meant students had to pick a new school for the fall, but because of bureaucracy, the Urban Pioneer Experiential Academy wasn't an official choice yet.

Wright says the Urban Pioneer students were notified about placement procedures, and that they can still register for a traditional high school at any time.

But Linda Mickelson, a parent of an Urban Pioneer junior, says the registration issue makes the search for a school site that much more dire. "If this school [Urban Pioneer Experiential Academy] doesn't get a building, [the students will] have nowhere to go," Mickelson says.

For most of its life, the Urban Pioneer program has been an offshoot of McAteer High School, with classrooms in two spacious bungalows and an airy building that used to be a metal shop. The program takes in students of all stripes, but Urban Pioneer consists primarily of kids who were flunking out of traditional school. As a last resort, a school counselor might refer a student to Urban Pioneer, which uses wilderness expeditions, ropes course training, community service, and career internships to teach life skills like motivation, leadership, and responsibility. Textbooks are rarely used in the Urban Pioneer curriculum, which according to MacDonald teaches subjects like English, math, and science through essay writing, boat building, wilderness survival training, and organic farming.

The approach is unorthodox, and critics say that Urban Pioneer students lag behind in their academics. But MacDonald says that his students are learning valuable life lessons, and that most move on to college or careers. Fifteen Urban Pioneer students have won Congressional Medals, and every year several students receive scholarships from programs like Outward Bound and Habitat for Humanity. Some students eventually go to schools like Yale, UC Berkeley, or Sarah Lawrence.

For most of its existence, the Urban Pioneer program has had a harmonious relationship with the San Francisco Unified School District, but tension allegedly erupted in the last couple of years. MacDonald says he noticed problems arising with administrative changes at McAteer High, and was told by an assistant principal that it was "unwise to question the system."

MacDonald, an undisputedly outspoken and rambunctious man, points to a series of frustrating incidents. In August 2001, Urban Pioneer was moved from McAteer to two portable classrooms on 43rd Avenue in the Outer Sunset -- half of its original space. The move forced some Urban Pioneer students to travel up to two hours to attend school, where two classes sometimes ran simultaneously in the same portable classroom because of a lack of space. For several months the site had only two bathrooms for 120 students and four full-time teachers, and no drinking water.

The district offered MacDonald the same site for the charter school, but he declined.

Because they were moved off-campus, MacDonald says, his returning students never received information about registering for a new school for the 2002-2003 school year. And though state money for his students still goes to McAteer High, MacDonald also says that his students were not invited to attend McAteer's prom or graduation, which McAteer Assistant Principal Karen Hart denies. In fact, a district spokesperson denies the existence of any tension between Urban Pioneer and the SFUSD.

"We are getting along now, and we are as supportive as we can be," says John Quinn, assistant to the superintendent. "It's a wonderful program, it's great for kids who lose their way or need something different."

But Eric Mar, a school board member, says he has noticed problems between Urban Pioneer and the school district. "When I talk to the superintendent or central office, the perspective is the Urban Pioneers are requesting more than their fair share, that they want special treatment," Mar says. "When I talk to the people at Urban Pioneer, they say they feel they are getting shafted by the district. And from what I have seen in the [school board] curriculum committee and the way Wayne has been treated by central office, I feel that they have been given the shaft."

MacDonald entered his proposal for a charter school in 2000 and received a school district staff recommendation for approval. But a process that can take as little as two to three months dragged on for nearly two years when the Board of Education vote was delayed several times because one school board member politically opposes charter schools and because the school district belatedly expressed safety concerns about the program.

Specifically, the district pointed to a May 2001 incident in which two Urban Pioneer students allegedly attended a logging protest in Mendocino without an adult. The district also noted that some students had gotten lost during a recent wilderness expedition.

MacDonald says these incidents are misunderstandings but says he has addressed the safety issue forthrightly.

The school board's Mar explains, "There were [safety-related] incidents where Wayne acknowledged that Urban Pioneer needed better administrative monitoring of students and teachers, which was a serious concern for central office. I felt Wayne addressed these issues in a way that was responsible. But there were constant delays. I found it disturbing."

After several vote postponements prompted by one school board member and "investigations" by the district, Urban Pioneer got the official go-ahead last December to open for the 2002-2003 school year. MacDonald says that left him little time to start up the charter school, though other charter schools throughout the state have been in the same predicament.

"They hoped our program would die," MacDonald insists, bitterness lacing his voice. "But we're still going strong."

When 17-year-old Reynaldo Rodriguez -- or "Rolo" for short -- came to Urban Pioneer a year ago, he was literally flunking out of school at Gateway High -- another San Francisco charter school. He had never been that interested in academics, and as a student in special education classes he had never had the attention span to read a single book from cover to cover.

"You'd be lucky if you see me in school," Rodriguez says. "I got fed up with it. In 10th grade, I didn't want to go anymore. I saw no reason for school. The only thing they care about is the test; everything comes down to the test you take at the end of the year. It made me mad to go to school."

Urban Pioneer was a last-ditch resort, but Rodriguez says there's something about it that makes him want to make the hour-and-a-half bus trip to school every day. In part, Rodriguez says, the appeal of Urban Pioneer is that it doesn't resemble traditional school at all -- there are no textbooks or paper tests. His teachers are also friends and mentors, he doesn't have to raise his hand and ask to go to the bathroom, and he spends his time doing "real life" activities, like public speaking, internships, keeping a journal, or writing a résumé.

Rodriguez says the 12-day wilderness expedition at the beginning of the Urban Pioneer program taught him teamwork, decision-making, and responsibility. On the last day of the expedition in a national park, the teachers part with the students, who have to find their way back to base camp on their own.

"You realize the reality of your situation," Rodriguez says of the expedition. "You realize that it's just you and 10 people just like you, and we found out how to get out of there, how to eat, every aspect of living. Everything is on you. We got it all done ourselves. I was a completely different person when I first came here. I've learned so much about myself."

By the end of the first semester, MacDonald says, academic changes were apparent in Rodriguez, too. "Last semester he came in and told me that he had read his first book, and he was so proud of it," MacDonald says. "He had never had a desire to do it before, and he had gotten away with it [in traditional school]."

Rodriguez says he is concerned that Urban Pioneer doesn't have a school site yet. If MacDonald can't find a location in time, Rodriguez would rather find independent-study programs than attend a district high school, he says.

But MacDonald tells his students to remain confident about the school opening. "I tell the kids to 'conceive, believe, achieve,' and that's what's going to happen here," MacDonald says. "I've bet my entire career on this school. It has to happen."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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