A new charter school program in Pittsburg has won state approval despite being turned down previously by both city and county education boards.

The Synergy Education Project has been in the works for two years, the brainchild of local educators Cheryl Townsend and Margie DiGiorgio. Townsend doesn't have a high school diploma but holds several college degrees and licenses because she "found mentors and by chance found a different pathway to an education that was the right fit."

She said she's committed to providing the same opportunities for other children. The program will consist of a middle school for grades 6-8 opening for the 2012-13 school year and a high school for grades 9-12 starting the following year.

"I've dedicated my career to helping kids just like me who are smart and capable but needed a different kind of learning environment in order to be successful," she said.

Townsend said the Synergy school, in contrast to regular public schools, will not offer "a textbook-based education."

"It will be almost exclusively technology-driven and project based."

An example project, she said, would be to tell students they have just landed on Mars.

"They are to build and design a colony fit for human consumption on Mars. They've got to do a social studies piece, form a government. They have to figure out how to survive and do city planning."

Townsend said the school also hopes to offer special services for local children who are poor or struggle with English and may not speak it at home. Three days a week, those English learners will take an extra 2½ hours of "intensive English development classes," Townsend said.

Another feature Townsend said she and her partner are absolutely determined to hold onto: a 25-to-1 ratio of students to teachers.

She and DiGiorgio pushed their proposal after being turned down by Pittsburg Unified School District a year ago and by the Contra Costa County board of education two months later. They won approval in an 8-1 vote by the California State Board of Education in November.

There are several catches, and at least one is major: The school doesn't have a home yet.

Townsend has decided against asking the district for facilities -- which state law could require them to provide -- and said she and DiGiorgio are working with an Antioch real estate agent to scout locations. The search is complicated by the fact that the school is planned to grow by leaps and bounds in its first years and will likely need to move at some point.

"We have to have secured facilities two months prior to the opening of the school," Townsend said.

Over the next five years, Townsend said, the school plans to add about 100 students each year, with a maximum of 700 children on the last approved year in 2017. It plans to start with 225 middle schoolers in August.

Pittsburg is home to about 10,000 students, mostly served by the school district, Superintendent Linda Rondeau said. Synergy will likely be taking students from the school district, which has grown by 600 students in the past two years, according to Rondeau. Between the enrollment growth and Townsend's plans to leave district facilities out of the picture, the effect on regular public schooling could be minimal.

The district and county education boards rejected the plans based largely on concerns about where funding would come from.

County board member Ellen Elster said at the time she was concerned that Synergy sponsors might not be able to get the $180,000 loan they were counting on from the state Charter School Revolving Loan Program.

A county staff report questioned the funding potential, pointing out that charter schools granted this loan in 2010 received only $100,000 each. The report also stated that the school's plans do not account for the costs of special education and the needs of English-language learners.

State board members rejected those concerns, and Townsend said Thursday she's expecting $375,000 to $575,000 in her first grant application. She said she's 95 percent confident that funding will come through in the next few months.

Contact Sean Maher at 925-779-7189.

online
Information about the Synergy Education Project is available at www.synergycharter.org.


The Synergy school
The Synergy Education Project plans for an alternative style of education, giving students project-based lessons.
25:1
Proposed ratio of students to teachers.
225
Middle school students expected to begin in August.
10,000
Students in Pittsburg, mostly served by the school district.