San Jose: Ex-DA seeks to open charter school
Reprinted originally from The Mercury News.
After decades of prosecuting young lawbreakers, Marc Buller is laying the groundwork for a charter middle school, one that he hopes will steer Santa Clara County’s most troubled youth away from delinquency.
Buller’s Legacy Academy likely would be the first public charter in California targeting foster youth and kids on probation as well as those expelled or chronically truant. It’s an idea that came to Buller, 58, before he retired in 2014 after serving as the county’s assistant district attorney, overseeing juvenile crime.
“If kids can’t read,” Buller said, “They graduate into prisons.”
In 2014, the latest figures available, 500 children under age 14 were referred to Santa Clara County probation and nearly 1,400 children were in foster care. Many of those youths bounce from school to school.
Legacy aims to engage families more intensively than traditional public schools and offer kids social, emotional and behavioral support, while steering them back on track so that they can focus on learning. It could open as early as August 2017, with as many as 120 sixth-graders, and eventually grow to 360 middle-schoolers. Buller is targeting pre-teens because it’s an opportune age to intervene, and prepare kids for high school.
First, though, the Legacy needs approval by the Santa Clara County Board of Education, which is slated to vote Wednesday.
“I think that’s a great idea,” said Linda Paster, a longtime foster parent who currently cares for seven adolescent girls in her Milpitas home. Kids who have been abused are angry, take it out on other people, and don’t care about school because of what they’re going through, she said. “I will be the first one ready to sign up my children.”
Buller’s novel vision has attracted backing from a constellation of current and former social services and education officials.
“It was so clear to me that we were not doing justice by the kids we were serving,” said former county mental health Director Nancy Peña, who sits on the Legacy board.
“This is a group of children and families that doesn’t currently have an obvious (education) solution that’s working,” said Greg Lippman, another Legacy board member and executive director of ACE, which runs five charter schools in the county.
But Legacy also faces many obstacles, starting with the tough student population it’s targeting. Studies show 90 percent of kids in the court system have suffered trauma, typically early in life and often repeatedly. Seventy percent have mental health issues and 30 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Unlike continuation schools, where districts sometimes place delinquent students, Legacy will have to persuade parents to send their children out of their neighborhoods and to pry preteens away from their friends to attend what could be labeled as the place for troublemakers.
“School districts work with all kids,” Alum Rock parent Maria Martinez said in opposing Legacy’s charter petition. “Why do you open another school instead of working with the school districts?”
Legacy Academy Executive Director Marc Buller hopes to build a charter middle school for troubled kids on the grounds of Emaus Church, in San Jose, Calif.,
Legacy Academy Executive Director Marc Buller hopes to build a charter middle school for troubled kids on the grounds of Emaus Church, in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Buller is a retired Santa Clara County Chief Assistant District Attorney who proposes to open a charter middle school for kids who have had brushes with the law, foster kids or those with behavioral problems. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group) ( LiPo Ching )
Legacy will depend on referrals from elementary school districts — Alum Rock, Franklin-McKinley, Evergreen and Mount Pleasant — that oppose Buller’s petition, because their leaders believe that the county board of education shouldn’t be approving charter schools. Buller, however, argues he needs a countywide charter to draw kids from many districts.
While the county school board is no longer as charter-friendly as it once was, Legacy’s hopes were buoyed at a recent hearing when the board’s staunchest charter opponent, Claudia Rossi of Morgan Hill, spoke passionately of the need for schools for troubled youth.
“The trauma to the families is immeasurable,” she said, noting that most suspended students are Latino boys. “I can’t sit by and not listen to a possible solution for those families who are quite desperate.”
Despite the challenges, providence seems to be smiling on Legacy. While the challenge of securing a campus bedevils charter-school operators throughout the pricey and built-out Bay Area, a chance conversation a year ago led Buller to an undeveloped 2.2-acre parcel smack in the middle of San Jose. It was so hidden in plain view that he drove past it several times on his search.
When he finally could take a look, he stood in amazement. On busy McLaughlin Avenue, behind an 1890s farmhouse, stretched the perfect, empty site for a small school.
“Don’t tell anyone about it,” Legacy’s consulting architect, Bill Gould, urged Buller.
The owners of the land, the 70-member Emaus Church, welcomed the school proposal. Emaus plans to lease the land at 1970 McLaughlin Ave. for a yet-to-be-negotiated price. Up to 18 modular buildings will be installed, and the aging farmhouse will remain as the new pastor’s home. The church will get to use Legacy classrooms on weekends.
It appears to be a match made, well, in heaven. The property even has two entrances to allow for a U-shaped driveway for student pickup and drop-off.
“We’ve always wanted to be able to serve the community around us,” said church elder Andrew Calderon. “We would love to be a part of that.”