With 8 weeks until school starts, Sacramento charter starts from scratch

The paint is fresh. The rooms are clean. All that’s needed at fledgling New Joseph Bonnheim Community Charter School are the students.

It has been less than a month since Sacramento City Unified School District trustees narrowly approved parents’ bid to reopen the elementary campus in south Sacramento and run it as a charter school. In a June presentation, proponents expected to enroll 323 students by the Sept. 8 start of class.

Now, with less than eight weeks left, the pressure is on. The district will deliver furniture and equipment in the coming weeks, said Dennis Mah, who describes himself as an architect of the New Bonnheim effort after having founded the Yav Pem Suab Academy, another charter school on South Land Park Drive.

Bonnheim is one of seven campuses the district closed in mid-2013 because of falling enrollment, and many students were shifted to Peter Burnett or Earl Warren elementary schools.

Last month, trustees Jay Hansen, Christina Pritchett, Diana Rodriguez and Gustavo Arroyo, the last of whom represents the neighborhood, provided the bare four-vote majority to go forward. They did so despite warnings from district staff that the plan, as proposed, did not fully explain its programs and was unlikely to succeed.

Representatives of the district and the Sacramento City Teachers Association are working out a process for posting jobs and hiring teachers, Mah said. Then teachers must coordinate their lesson plans for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. But hiring is still weeks away, since the number of teachers will depend on how many students are enrolled.

As of Thursday afternoon, the third day of the registration drive, about 100 students had signed up.

That came after volunteers began walking the neighborhood, knocking on doors and contacting parents. Among them were Arthur Aleman, one of three leaders of the charter drive. His granddaughter, Destiny Silva, is signed up to start the fifth grade at Bonnheim.

Manuel Duenas and his sons Cristiano, 4, and Adriano, 2, were in front of their home when Aleman showed up, fliers in hand. Duenas said later he had learned about Bonnheim three weeks ago from family friends. On Thursday, he was enthusiastic.

Cristiano, who will be 5 in August, “was supposed to be enrolled at Earl Warren (Elementary School),” Duenas said. That changed after he researched plans for New Bonnheim.

“The type of program that they’re running, it’s more hands-on. It’s more dedicated to the students,” the father said. “I saw the curriculum, and hopefully it will give my son a better opportunity for the future.”

Others who signed up were just happy to have children attend a school in their own neighborhood.

“This was their home school,” Jose Armenta, speaking through a translator, said of his three sons. Jose Jr. is entering the fourth grade, while twins Manuel and Gabriel will be in first grade.

All were moved to Peter Burnett Elementary a year ago.

“They really liked it here,” Armenta said. “It’s in their neighborhood.”

Mah’s nonprofit, Dr. Mah & Associates, is providing a $300,000 line of credit to cover New Bonnheim’s immediate cash needs as necessary. The nonprofit until 2011 provided after-school tutoring to students at low-performing Sacramento City Unified schools, for which it received federal funds beyond $1 million annually.

Mah, a former elementary school principal, said he drew about $150,000 in compensation last year from the nonprofit, whose stated mission is to “improve the education of underprivileged students attending low-performing schools.”

The petition for Bonnheim’s charter calls for a program that mirrors the Yav Pem Suab Academy, which includes a Hmong-language component. It calls for a “body-brain approach to teaching” that incorporates physical activity into academic exercises. The overriding theme will be agriculture.

“We’re going to follow the Common Core State Standards,” Mah said, referring to new national guidelines intended to place more emphasis on problem solving. He said the students “are going to read, write, think, and they are going to do all that through the context of agriculture.”

Mah said the school needs a minimum of 250 to 300 students for the program to work as planned. It would be possible to open with as few as 80 students, but that would mean having two teachers and no principal, he explained.

“We can make it happen,” he said. “But our full program and serve our community” calls for enrollment be be closer to the 323-student target.

Mah and interim Principal Frank O’Connor said sign-ups will continue through the summer. The organizers are planning a grand opening event Saturday, Aug. 2, to share information with parents and take more sign-ups.

Parents can visit the school weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to register a child or call the school at (916) 277-6294 for an appointment and enrollment information.

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