UPDATE: The Tam Union High School District posted its staff report (attached at right) on Friday afternoon for the proposed elimination of the Team program. Facing an ourpouring of opposition to the proposal, another option has been added that recommends keeping the program and finding ways to bring its principles to programs that reach more students. The report indicates that budget cuts must offset keeping the program and expanding its principles.
A campaign in opposition to the proposed termination of a popular alternative education program within the Tamalpais Union High School District has garnered nearly 2,700 signatures on a Change.org petition and nearly 3,500 Facebook members in less than five days.
When the district board takes up the matter on Feb. 6, it will likely face an outpouring of opposition that has galvanized quickly and broadly since Chuck Ford, who has overseen the program for the past 21 of its 22 years in existence, found out about Tam Union Superintendent Laurie Kimbrel’s recommendation to kill the program Friday afternoon.
Ford said he left his Lagunitas home Saturday morning at 9 a.m. and returned at 1 p.m. During that time, one of his students had set up a Save the Team Program page on Facebook, garnering more than 850 members in a few hours.
“From time to time, the rapidity of this stuff just takes my breath away,” Ford said.
Tam High senior Emily Rostek, a Team program and one of the students behind the opposition campaign, said the effort reached a critical mass in a flash on Saturday morning.
“Right now the Internet is such a great place to rally people,” she said.
Kimbrel is set to recommend to the Tam Union board at its Feb. 6 meeting to cut the Team program, a one-year academic and experiential learning program open to juniors in the district. The program, which operates through Tamiscal High in Larkspur, focuses on community service, career exploration, wilderness adventure in places like Joshua Tree National Park and the Sierra Nevada mountains, and ropes course leadership. It gets up to 100 applicants per year for 24 slots.
Kimbrel argues that the amount being spent on the program each year – $260,000 for staff and supplies alone – is disproportionate to the low number of students – 24 – who go through it annually. She is proposing to distribute the program's funding to the district’s three large high schools – Tamalpais, Drake and Redwood – for their respective principals to develop their own experiential programs that reach a much larger portion of the district’s more than 3,500 students.
“We want to figure out some ways to have experiential, personalized learning based in problem solving that students find relevant and engaging and how could we expand it so that it could reach hundreds of students,” Kimbrel said.
Kimbrel also says the program doesn’t reach enough of a diverse array of students, both ethnically and in terms of academic performance. She says records from the past six years indicate that only one African-American and three Hispanic students have gone through the program. She blames in part the fact that the program is held at Tamiscal, forcing students from other schools to travel to Larkspur.
“This is a program that is mostly reaching white, high-achieving students,” Kimbrel said.
Ford, 66, disputes those numbers, saying he counts 17 non-white students over the past six years. He also said district administrators aren’t factoring in the program’s ability to reach students who achieve decent grades but are, as he put it, “disaffected,” in addition to those getting poor grades.
Ford is retiring at the end of the 2012-2013 school year anbd has been working with Team program co-manager Nikole Denton on a post-retirement transition plan. Ford's retirement triggered the re-evaluation of the Team program, district officials said.
“This was a natural time to have this discussion,” said Cindy McCauley, a longtime Tam High parent and a member of the Tam Union District board.
Because of that timing, and since the district is in the midst of an evaluation of all of its alternative education programs, Ford said he wasn’t surprised by Kimbrel’s recommendation. But that doesn’t mean he agrees with it.
“It was sad and dispiriting,” he said. “To throw it away just seems horribly short-sighted. I’ve had more than 200 emails from former students (in recent days), almost all saying that it changed their life for the better.”
Rostek said she was one of those students, and that the Team program, particularly a class on wilderness medicine and the outdoor exercises that complemented it, heightened her focus.
“When I got to Team, everything clicked,” she said. “It was all hands-on learning. I learned a lot more than I ever would from any textbook.”
In addition to the outpouring via the online campaigns, Rostek and her classmates made flyers and posted them all over the Tam Union campuses and surrounding areas.
Kimbrel said she was not surprised by the energized opposition, crediting the strong feelings of Team program’s approximately 500 alums and their families for it, as well as the ease for campaigns like this one to go viral online. Kimbrel said her daughter, a junior at Redwood, signed the Change.org petition with the quick press of a button on her phone at dinner.
“It’s really easy now to get thousands of names on something,” she said. “We have to take that for what it is.”
Tam Union District Board President John Wright emphasized that Kimbrel’s recommendation, which will be available on the district’s website Friday afternoon, is just that.
“No final action has been taken,” he said.
“We haven’t even talked about it yet as a board,” McCauley added. “That’s the part that people don’t seem to understand.”
Neither Wright nor McCauley said they’d decided yet on how to vote on the recommendation on Feb. 6, but both noted the district’s interest in reaching more students with the kind of experiential learning that the Team program offers. Wright, a 12-year veteran of the board, said the program has shifted away from its original intent to reach at-risk students.
“This is a very special program that serves very few kids,” Wright said. “Over time, it’s turned into more of an enrichment program for kids who are not necessarily at-risk. It’s turned into sort of an elitist program. We want to be able to serve more kids, plain and simple.”
The 411: The Tamalpais Union High School District board meets to consider the fate of the Team program at 7 p.m. on Feb. 6 at Redwood High, 395 Doherty Dr. in Larkspur. The staff report will be attached to this article when it becomes available Friday afternoon.