RVC’s inspiration began more than two decades ago when a group of parents in the Ross Valley School District sought an alternative approach for their children’s education. After much research, they chose to model their program, called the Innovative Learning Community (ILC), on the Reggio Emilia Approach, which is based on the belief that children learn by constructing their own knowledge within the context of relationships with peers, teachers, and parents, and that the teacher is a guide and facilitator who collaborates, co-learns, and researches with the students. In 1996, the District approved two classrooms of the program to be housed at Manor School, adding a third classroom with the implementation of class size reduction that year. The program was later renamed the Multi-Age Program, or MAP. Over the years, demand for the program was consistently high, resulting in an expansion to six classes serving 130 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
High Demand Causes Growing Pains
All District students were eligible for the program, and annual admission was determined by random lottery overseen by the District. MAP students included students residing within geographic boundaries designated for attendance at each of the 4 RVSD elementary campuses. By 2014, with more than 100 students on the waiting list, parents and teachers felt strongly that the MAP program should be available to as many interested families as possible, and that it was important to maintain the critical elements of the program, such as the Leadership Council which enables parents and teachers together a meaningful voice in the program’s direction, operation and activities. To meet the demand, parents and teachers requested that the District expand the program to nine classes. The Superintendent asked the MAP community to make a proposal to move to the unoccupied Red Hill School site. The proposal was evaluated by the District but turned down due to the ongoing operational cost of an additional campus.
“It makes every difference in the world that so many fellow parents are also an integral part of the learning process, as in-classroom witnesses and participants. The whole experience builds a community I value, trust and feel grateful to have, with benefits extending far beyond the elementary years.” — Katherine C., parent
Simultaneously, parents and teachers at Manor school (where MAP was located) tried for several years to work with District leadership to address the challenges of having two elementary school programs on one site while also meeting the high demand for the program. District leadership declined to work collaboratively with the Manor parent/teacher community to address the issues, and made a number of decisions that signalled a lack of support for MAP. Due to the strong value this group placed on engagement in the educational process and parent/teacher voice in their school—from policy to potlucks—the idea of creating a charter school became part of the discussion as a way of ensuring this educational alternative would remain available in the community. Operating as a charter school rather than a by-choice District program would allow the program to continue its valued tradition of strong parent voice in the form of a Leadership Council, hire its own director focused on supporting this educational model, give teachers more flexibility to collaborate and determine professional development directions, and expand to serve more students and families.
Becoming Ross Valley Charter
Tremendous teacher and parent volunteer time was devoted to developing and writing a 200-page charter school petition containing all elements required by the charter process as set forth by California law. Following a thorough petition review and hearings, including in-person and submitted written testimonies from educators, students and parents, the State Board of Education unanimously approved the school in January 2016, adding RVC to the roster of over 1,200 charter schools in California and three in Marin County.
Finding a Site
School organizers were excited to open the school that fall, but a long and exhaustive search for a site suitable for a school facility within the required geographic Ross Valley School District boundaries came up empty. So, in January 2016 RVC requested to rent the unoccupied Red Hill School site from the District. Though upgrades to the site would be costly for RVC, it was felt that this would be the least impactful location on the District as a whole, a priority for program advocates. And as charter schools have more flexible facility options, the cost of alterations required to meet building code standards for a charter school would be significantly less than previous District estimates made when the site was proposed as a site for a District program. However, in the end, after two bidding proposals, a mutually agreeable contract could not be agreed upon.
As a result, the opening of RVC was delayed by one year. Through Prop 39, a California law requiring districts to share empty classrooms with charter schools operating within its geographic boundaries, the District offered to rent RVC eight classrooms at White Hill Middle School campus for the 2017-18 school year.
Ross Valley Charter opened its doors in August 2017 with students in Transitional Kindergarten through fifth grade. All six teachers from the Multi-Age Program are now teaching at Ross Valley Charter in multi-age classrooms.
"Our family chooses RVC because what it offers is truly unique; an inclusive and progressive approach to 21st century education with teachers whose commitment to the development of the whole child is at the forefront. There is a respect for children's strengths, interests - and challenges too - that has allowed my children to thrive as they learn."
— Natasha N., parent