California Educator

May / June 2017

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Page 23 of 59

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 tapdancing. Still others destress in a yoga class. There's a unique vibe at Helix Charter High School in La Mesa, San Diego Coun ty. 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 com prehensive high school in the state to convert to a charter high school. Teach ers, education support professionals and administrators formed their own inde pendent charter school, although they still contract with Grossmont Union High School District to provide services for stu dents 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 Associa tion. "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 curricu lum, which includes a freshman "skills '' The only people we are beholden to are your typical stakeholders: parents, students and the state Education Code. '' HELIX CHARTER TRANSPARENCY KEEPS THINGS REAL 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 with out completing 40 hours of community volunteer work and a 20hour 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 gradelevel vice principals and a CEO instead of a prin cipal. 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 ninemember Charter Governing Board, consisting of parents, staff, commu nity members and a student, makes policy decisions. Meetings are open to the public. "That way we avoid corruption," says BEN STONE, President, Helix Teachers Association Students at Helix Charter High practice their tap dancing moves. 22 FEATURE

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