A Waldorf public charter school is seeking to expand in Orange County and to establish a campus in Cypress within the Los Alamitos Unified School District.
Sycamore Creek Community Charter School serves roughly 160 students from TK to 8th grade at its Huntington Beach campus. The school, which first opened in 2019 in the Ocean View School District, is now asking the Orange County Board of Education for permission to serve students from across the county and to expand to high school grades.
The school aims to gradually add grade levels at a new location down the street from Los Alamitos High School. Sycamore is projecting to accommodate more than 500 TK - 12 grade students at the new campus on West Cerritos Avenue by the 2026-27 school year, according to its petition submitted to the Orange County Department of Education.
The move is opposed by the Los Alamitos USD which argues the expansion could cost the district millions of dollars in state funding leading to cuts in programs and staffing. It also questioned what the school could offer students that the district is not already offering.
“To my knowledge … no evidence that this particular charter school could come close to matching what a Los Al education provides for our children has been presented,” Los Alamitos USD board member Marlys Davidson said at the board’s Feb. 7 meeting.
Board President Chris Forehan cited Sycamore’s below-county-average test scores as part of a reason to reject the four-year-old school’s request. “We asked the county board to exercise reasonable restraint and deny Sycamore's expansion until this new school can establish itself.”
Most of the pro-charter school trustees on the Orange County Board of Education appear poised to support Sycamore saying it offers a “unique” option for students and its growth expands parents’ choices in public education. At least one trustee, however, expressed serious concerns about Sycamore’s test scores.
“It is important to provide choice to families and I believe our community should have more options. Every child is different,”Orange County Board of Education trustee Mari Barke, who represents the area that includes the Los Alamitos USD, wrote in an email to Spotlight Schools. She added her son attended LAHS but her daughter attended a private school. “Fortunately we could afford private school, not all families have that option,” she wrote.
There are currently no charter schools in Los Alamitos USD. Barke and many of her colleagues on the OCBE have received campaign donations from pro-charter school groups including the Charter Public Schools PAC.
The OCBE is expected to consider Sycamore’s new request at a meeting next month.
Sycamore focused on the ‘whole-child’ philosophy
Charter schools are public schools, funded through taxpayer dollars, but operate under different oversight and rules in California and are given flexibility in their curriculum.
Sycamore’s website states it adheres to the core principles of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education and its emphasis is on“fostering the concept of ‘hardiness’” in students. Students are offered music, world languages, games, and handwork or woodwork.
“SCCCS will fulfill the need of providing a public Waldorf education that focuses on a ‘whole-child’ philosophy. We believe that children need to remain children for as long as possible and not grow up too fast,” Sycamore writes in its petition submitted to the Orange County Department of Education.
Sycamore serves students from across O.C. and beyond. About 40% of its current students come from Long Beach, according to the school. In the map included in the school’s petition, each dot represents a student attending Sycamore.
Sycamore is one of two TK-8 public charter schools teaching Waldorf curriculum in O.C. The other is Journey School in the Capistrano Unified School District. The private Waldorf School of Orange County in Costa Mesa charges between $18,500 and $27,600 annually for tuition for K - 12 grade students, according to its website.
In its petition for countywide status, Sycamore says if approved, it would become the first Waldorf public charter high school in the county.
“By operating as a countywide benefit charter school, SCCCS will have the ability to recruit students from school districts neighboring the campus, thereby embracing diversity and choice throughout the County and even to contiguous counties,” its petition states.
Parents speak out in support, Los Alamitos USD officials are opposed
On Feb. 1, the Orange County Board of Education held a public hearing on Sycamore’s request to expand. Numerous Sycamore parents, staff and students asked the board to approve the request during public comment praising the school.
A parent of a first grader at Sycamore was one of them. She explained her gratitude to have the chance to send her son to a Waldorf school with no tuition. She spoke in support of the school’s use of “looping,” where students stay with the same teacher for their entire educational experience. “I take extreme comfort in how well his teacher knows him and will get to know him as he goes through the grades,” she said.
A father appreciated the fact that his child was learning how to knit, calling it “one of the many benefits” the school provides. “I don't think I even know how to sew on a button on my shirt,” he said.
“There's a lot of community support out here. We have families that drive from all over the county to come to Sycamore Creek because it's where their kids are happy and where they learn and feel comfortable,” said a father of two Sycamore students, who also said he is a public-school teacher in Downey.
Students also spoke out.
“The thing I love to do most at Sycamore is to walk on my stilts I made the first year there. If I went to a different school I would not do that stuff like they do now like gardening, walking on stilts, draw, [or] play the games we do at Sycamore,” Jasmine, an 8th grader, told the board.
Two representatives of the Los Alamitos Unified School District spoke out against the charter’s expansion arguing it would negatively impact the district’s finances, and questioned its budget and compensation for teachers. That included the district assistant superintendent of business services, Elvia Galicia.
“If we lose 500 students to the Charter, we could potentially lose $5 million in funding,” Galicia wrote in an email to Spotlight Schools. She said the figure was based on state funding of $11,000 per student the district receives.
The Los Alamitos Unified School District has about 9,000 students. But like districts across the state, it has been seeing enrollment decline for many years. Fewer students translate to less state funding overall. Galicia said if a lot of students left, the district would have to potentially cut staffing, arts or athletic programs and “change numerous educational programs.”
OCBE trustee Barke said the $5 million figure was “outrageous” during the Feb. 1 meeting.
“You look at that map and these kids are coming from all over Orange County and beyond. So it's not going to affect that one little district. It's really not. The impact of the district is minimal,” Barke said.
Galicia also expressed concerns about teacher compensation and the school’s ability to offer professional development.“They indicate teachers starting salary rate from $58,101 to a maximum of $68,000 which will present a serious challenge for the charter to attract and retain high-quality and experienced teachers. Los Al starting teacher rate is $72,000 to a max of $140,000 for a veteran teacher,” Galicia wrote.
Sarah Bach, Ph.D., a founding parent of Sycamore and its Executive Director, said their teachers have health and retirement benefits which increase their overall compensation and said they pay for full-time teachers to get Waldorf training.
“I believe that many school district budgets are bloated by administrative costs that take funding away from kids and teachers,” Dr. Bach wrote in an email to Spotlight Schools. Dr. Bach’s annual salary was listed at $90,000.
Concern over test scores
At the Feb. 1 OCBE public hearing, trustee Jorge Valdes expressed concerns about Sycamore’s test scores.
“I'm in favor of charter schools and you clearly have a lot of parents’ support here. And I'm really in favor of putting the power of education in parents,” Valdes told the audience and added, “But I have some really, really significant concerns regarding the test scores in Sycamore and I'm not even sure that the parents are aware of this who are in this room.”
According to EdSource, Sycamore’s standardized test scores for last school year showed 28.36% of its students met or exceeded California’s standard for English Language Arts and 19.32% met or exceeded the state’s math standards.
That is well below the Orange County average from 2022 where 57% of O.C. students met or exceeded the ELA standards and 45% of students met or exceeded the math standards.
By comparison, the Los Alamitos USD had the highest percentage of students meeting or exceeding ELA standards in any district in O.C. in 2022 with 79%. In math, 68% of students met or exceeded math in 2022. (Disclosure: my students attend a Los Alamitos USD school.)
Valdes asked for an explanation from Sycamore’s representatives and they cited challenges coming out of Covid-19 for their first year of testing, intense struggles last winter when the Omicron variant led to many students and teachers out due to illness which amounted to less time in the classroom for students to prepare for the tests.
“It was two months mid-year that we completely, completely lost. Really it's about 20% of the school year that we lost,” Dr. Bach said.
Dr. Bach also said that because her school is smaller, one student’s low performance is more impactful suggesting measuring a larger school district’s scores against Sycamore’s is not a fair comparison.
“But it's just not apples to apples. It's really not. Every school is so unique and different,” she told board trustees. In an email Dr. Bach said she is taking a closer look at the school’s test scores and will present more information about them when the board is due to vote on the petition.
Barke expressed concern about the scores but also faith in the charter.
“I am concerned by the scores. However, [Bach] has a reasonable explanation and we will continue to monitor their results,” Barke wrote in an email, saying she anticipates much better scores in the future.
Los Alamitos USD board members speak out
At the Los Alamitos USD Board of Education meeting on Feb. 7, board members shared why they are against Sycamore coming into the district.
Board member Marlys Davidson questioned the benefit Sycamore's curriculum would offer district students. “While the teachers are using instructional time at Sycamore to sew on buttons, our elementary students are experimenting with engineering to create aerodynamic vehicles and build bridges,” Davidson said in her board communications at the meeting.
In an email, Dr. Bach responded that “sewing buttons is actually an important life skill and actually a critical skill to becoming a surgeon,” and linked to a 2018 article from the BBC about medical students losing dexterity due to increased screen time.
Board member Diana Hill supports giving parents a choice. “I believe that a parent has the right to choose the best education for their child. And so I am not anti-charter, I'm not for charter, but I believe that parents have that right,” she said but added that she still feels district schools are the best option. “We really feel that we have incredible programs for … all of our students, and that this program wouldn't necessarily add anything that we aren't already providing.”
Hill also lamented that the process erodes local control over schools in the district since Sycamore would be able to get approval to operate without any formal process directly involving Los Alamitos USD. If approved, the Orange County Department of Education would have oversight over Sycamore.
In Sycamore's original petition to open, the Ocean View School District Board of Trustees denied its request and opposed its opening in 2019. The school appealed to the OCBE and it was approved on a 3-2 vote.
“I believe parents have the right to choose the best education for their child and I don't think that all charters are horrible,” Los Alamitos USD Board Vice President Megan Cutuli said at the Feb. 7 meeting. “My opinion is that the rules for charter schools are so vastly different than the rules for California public schools … that you really can't even compare them.” Cutuli said she feels the accountability in the traditional public school sector is much higher than for charter schools.
Cutuli also warned that if the charter is approved, it can legally ask for the district to provide space on its campuses for Sycamore students. That is the law under Proposition 39, according to the California Charter Schools Association.
Dr. Bach wrote that “it is very unlikely that we would submit an application given that we have secured a facility and have such a broad geographical range of students.” Sycamore would need to show it has at least 80 students from Los Alamitos USD enrolled to submit a request to use district facilities.
The Orange County Department of Education Charter Schools Unit is expected to issue its report and recommendation on Sycamore’s petition on Feb. 14. A vote on the request to expand is expected to be on the OCBE’s March 1 meeting agenda.