Penny Schwinn, who runs a charter school, wants funds restored for the AVID program.

Q&A: New Sacramento County schools trustee keeps focus on student achievement

Published: Monday, Aug. 13, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 13, 2012 - 10:16 am

Penny Schwinn potentially tipped the scales for charter schools when she won a seat on the Sacramento County Office of Education board in June.

The charter school operator won despite stiff competition from Heather McGowan, a candidate supported by teachers unions. The unions are opposed to a countywide network of charter schools to be opened by educator Margaret Fortune. The schools were approved by the county Board of Education.

So, who is this new board member and what are her objectives? On Thursday, Schwinn talked to The Bee as she was preparing for the new school year at Capitol Collegiate Academy, the charter school she founded.

The fledgling school relocated from Fruitridge Elementary School in Oak Park to recently closed Freeport Elementary school in Meadowview just two weeks ago. Schwinn said there were safety concerns at the other school site and that transportation will be provided for the 125 students enrolled this school year.

Schwinn, 29, has a doctorate in education and a 6-month-old baby. Her husband, Paul Schwinn, is the principal of Oak Park Preparatory Academy – a charter school – and her mother is a teacher at Del Paso Heights Elementary in the Twin Rivers Unified School District.

>Why did you become interested in education?

I couldn't understand why my playmates couldn't read when I was a child. My mom explained about the achievement gap. I worked with Teach for America for two years in Baltimore. I was a 20-year-old teaching my peers basic multiplication. The experience changed my perspective about how deep the problem was.

>Why did you decide to run for the SCOE board?

I support good schools and decided to run for that reason. The Fortune charters had nothing to do with my decision. I want to work with policy.

When you run a school, you realize there is a big difference between the money the Legislature says we get and what we see. The average school gets $9,500 annually per student. We see barely $5,000. About 40 percent of the money goes to the California Department of Education. In some states they receive $14,000 to $15,000 per student. We see a third of the dollars and are expected to have the same results.

>Is your goal to open more charter schools in the county?

If it's a great charter school, great. If we can replicate that – wonderful. I have been blunt and direct. I don't support bad schools, especially if we are going to use public money. Really bad charter schools should be closed. Good ones should be open. I'd like to close the bottom 5 percent of bad schools. The best thing that can happen is for traditional schools to put me out of business.

>What are your goals?

First we have to find funding for the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program, which was recently cut by the state. The program supports students who would traditionally attend low-performing schools or aren't on the path to college or academic success. It boosts their self-esteem and puts them on the track to college. You see huge changes. Their scores increase. It increases what they consider to be their options after high school.

>Tell me about academic achievement at your school?

We started last year with 60 pre-K and kindergartners – 80 percent performing below grade level. Now 25 percent are performing at grade level, 50 percent at first-grade level and 25 percent at the second-grade level.

>What do you think of the county school board so far?

I'm impressed with my new colleagues. They have renewed my energy and belief that it is possible to make real change. Some may not have supported me in the election, but they are supportive now. The county Office of Education has a phenomenal staff – efficient, effective and productive.

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