It was a venture that started with hope, and now parents are scrambling to keep alive the vision that was once Context Middle School.
Last week’s revelation from Temecula Valley Unified School District officials that the school was facing closure came as a shock to parents, staff and students who had hopped on board for the charter’s inaugural year.
The move comes amid several resignations from the school’s Board of Directors in recent months and reports that the school is $175,000 in the red. Founder Michele Smith, a former businesswoman and entrepreneur, was dismissed by the board, according to Temecula Valley Unifed School District spokeswoman Melanie Norton.
“My understanding is that (Michele Smith) did not resign and that she was asked by the board to leave and wasn’t allowed to be involved with the school and handle the money,” she said.
According to district officials, the school will be unable to pay its teachers and staff by Feb. 15.
It is not known if an investigation into the handling of the budget is planned.
“How we were not informed earlier, I am not sure,” Temecula resident and Context Middle School parent Melissa Landis said.
“We are still hopeful that the district can jump in and save it,” said Landis, adding that several parents were compiling lists of families willing to stay on board and see the year through.
“Parents are trying to keep the kids at the school’s location,” she said.
Many students have looked into other schooling options, including enrolling in TVUSD’s middle schools near their homes.
Context Middle School lured over 200 students in its first year, promising reduced class sizes and an intensive, inspired approach to learning.
“The small learning environment works really well here,” Context teacher Hallie Botkin said. “These are the best teachers I’ve ever worked with. They loved the kids. Not one day did I see the teachers sitting behind their desks.”
According to Norton, word of the school’s peril did not reach district officials until vendors began asking to be paid. Up until that time, the district’s only role was that of ensuring the school was in compliance with its charter. Money matters were the responsibility of Context’s board of directors.
“Enrollment wasn’t what they projected, and that will make a big difference,” said Norton, noting that Context Schools did not start with the desired 300 students.
As controversy swirled at the school, families pulled out.
Norton said the school began “slowly dropping” in enrollment as parents appeared to lose faith in the program and those leading it.
Botkin said that while questions abound as to how and whether the money was mishandled, the bottom line remains the same.
“Right or wrong, the kids are the ones that suffer,” said Botkin, adding that if 150 students elect to remain with the school, there is a possibility that the year could be completed with some modifications.
While the curriculum will remain the same, it’s possible that, because the teachers were hired under the Context charter, the current staff of teachers will not remain on staff. The jobs will be offered instead to TVUSD teachers currently in lay-off status.
Botkin estimated that roughly 30 more students are needed for the school to remain open.
“It’s possible that they will look into keeping the school around as a smaller middle school,” said Botkin, noting it’s too soon to tell the fate of the school and its students.
Said Landis: “Kids are resilient. I have no worry that my son will be okay. It was a wonderful environment. And I would do it again.”
*Editor’s Note: A conversation with district spokeswoman confirmed this morning that founder Michele Smith was asked by the Board to leave her post.
Kerri S. Mabee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter @kerrimabee.