Tuesday, June 25, 2019     Volume: 20, Issue: 16

Santa Maria Sun / School Scene

The following article was posted on August 9th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 23 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 19, Issue 23

Former Tommie Kunst principal working to bring new charter school to county

By Kasey Bubnash

Just months after enduring what she called her "worst" experience in 25 years of teaching and education, which led to her recent resignation from a local junior high school, former principal Carmen Rivera is working to open a new charter school in Santa Barbara County.

Although plans for the public charter school, Affinity Charter, are still in their earliest stages, Rivera said the application process has begun. In order to be authorized, Rivera must submit a detailed charter petition, budget, and school design to a local school district, the county, and then the state. 

If approved, Rivera said the school would use innovative, individualized learning plans to better educate fifth through eighth graders in Santa Maria, specifically those of color and low socioeconomic status. 

While students and teachers of all colors would be welcome at Affinity Charter, Rivera said each student's inherent strengths, background, and culture would be considered throughout their time in the school–a practice that Rivera said is not currently used in mainstream education. 

"It's about being culturally responsive," Rivera told the Sun

The nation's student population has been diversifying for decades, but Rivera said teaching strategies used have largely gone unchanged. American kids still spend most classes sitting in rows, silently listening, reading, and writing, and only speaking when called upon, Rivera said, just as students did centuries ago. 

But not all students learn in the same ways, and not all students come from the same kinds of homes and families. Childhood trauma, poverty, and privilege are all issues that affect different children in different ways, and Rivera said Affinity's individualized teaching strategies would address those contrasting characteristics. 

Class times would be flexible for families with demanding schedules, communication would be revered, and the school would take full advantage of each student's learning strengths. Affinity students wouldn't be punished for trivial infractions like doodling, speaking out, or being late for class, Rivera said. 

"The foundation is really about supporting parents and students through this progressive type of learning," Rivera said. "This charter school is supposed to give an opportunity to students who struggle with mainstream programs and systems." 

It's the same strategy Rivera had hoped to establish at Tommie Kunst Junior High School when she was hired as principal in the summer of 2017. 

At Tommie Kunst, Rivera said she saw the same pattern repeated constantly: a student managing a lot at home would be constantly berated by teachers for being late, being loud, and being distracted. 

Those issues, Rivera said, were compounded by the "implicit biases" that all teachers have toward students of varying ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses. While about 92 percent of students attending Tommie Kunst during the 2017-18 school year identified as hispanic or Latino, only 1.4 percent of its teachers were the same ethnicity, and 82 percent were white, according to data collected by the California Department of Education.

Those disparate rates, she said, often negatively impact students of color. 

"I saw an instance where I realized that how we were treating kids on campus was inappropriate," Rivera said, "and I called it out. Some people were offended. And I get it, I get it. Maybe I went about it in the wrong way."

At a Santa Maria-Bonita board of education meeting in February, almost a dozen Tommie Kunst teachers called for Rivera's resignation, citing ineffective leadership skills and a hostile attitude toward white teachers. Although a few community members and a student defended her at the meeting, Rivera stepped down from her post as principal in April, according to Santa Maria-Bonita Public Information Officer Maggie White, and officially resigned from the district on June 29. 

The experience, though painful, inspired her to develop the plan for Affinity Charter, which she hopes will be opened to a small group of students and teachers by fall 2019. Finding donors and other funding sources, she said, are her immediate next steps. 

"It broke my heart to leave [Tommie Kunst]," Rivera said, "but I don't know that I'm ready to leave the community. And I don't know that I'm ready to abandon children who need an advocate for them." 

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash writes School Scene each week. Information can be sent to the Sun via mail, fax, or email at mail@santamariasun.com. 

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