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Issue 06/02/11 - Vol. 42, Issue 21

We're in the Education Business
by lyle e davis

One man’s vision brought the Escondido Charter High School into being.  

One man.  

But one man who was inspired, and had the ability to inspire others to assist him in building that vision.

That one man was, and is, Dennis “Coach” Snyder.

To understand how one man could accomplish so much, you have to go back to his humble beginnings.

He was one of seven kids, living in Salem, Ohio, near Cleveland.  It was tough, being part of a family that included seven kids; and then it got tougher.  His mom was injured in a car wreck that, miraculously, did not kill her.  She survived but her injuries and the subsequent hospital and other medical bills put such a strain on the family that it was decided that the three oldest boys would be farmed out to relatives.

And so it was that young Dennis Snyder rode a Greyhound bus to a quiet little Southern California town with the quaint name of Escondido.

He would stay with his uncle, Tom Snyder, the owner of Freeway Trailer Sales.  Originally, the plan was to stay for one year . . . but, as they say, plans change.

He would enroll in the 8th grade and one year later, do the same as a freshman at Escondido High School.

His first year in high school was unremarkable . . .in fact, he says, he was a bit of a troublemaker; no sense of direction or mission in life.

Then he met Coach Chick Embry.  
“It was in my sophomore year that I?met and really got to know Coach Embry,”?he says.  “He touched my life and brought me to my strong Christian faith.”  

From that point on it was as though young Dennis Snyder had been reborn.  He became an excellent student and athlete.  He observed how Chick Embry both taught and coached.  He decided that’s what he wanted to do in life.

Indeed, after graduating from Escondido High School he attended Palomar College for two years, securing his Associate of Arts Degree, then on to San Diego State where he earned his teaching credential.  Then on to the University of San Diego where he earned his Master’s Degree in Education in 1972.

He had begun to teach History and Driver’s Education at Escondido High School in 1966 and when an opening came up in Physical Education, he jumped at it.  He coached football and basketball for 12 years and then in 1978 he became head coach, serving in that position for 28 years and then for seven years at Orange Glen High School in a similar position.

Coaching and teaching was important to Snyder.  It was so important that even though he had met and began dating his bride-to-be, Diane Galindo, in 1966, they both agreed to defer marriage until they had both finished college. That goal having been met, they will celebrate 45 years of marriage this July 9th.
Life went on nicely for this hard working couple, both of whom were teachers.  Toward the latter stages of Dennis’ teaching tenure he began to think of and plan for the future.  Events were unfolding that would have a profound impact on his decisions.

In 1992 the Charter School movement began.  Dennis took note of it and followed the progress, studying the issues.  In 1996, after 30 years of teaching he decided to leave his comfortable salary, to leave his tenured position, and to retire from teaching.  He then proceeded to build his own school. The man had guts.

He used his credit cards to rent rooms in a commercial building on East Valley Parkway in Escondido; he bought supplies, still using his credit cards.  He bought small ads in the papers and recruited students through their parents.  Meetings were held and Coach Snyder spelled out his philosophies.  “We’re not in the transportation business, we’re not in the lunch business, we’re in the education business!”
Thirty parents took a chance and he started his 9th grade with 30 students.  An additional 32 of them were enrolled in the Individual Learning Program.  The next year another 30 parents took a chance and a second 9th grade class was born.  

At first it didn’t look much like a school.  But parents kept coming, wanting their kids to be educated under Coach Snyder’s philosophy.  At the end of the second year the student population was such that he had rented more and more rooms and then, eventually, wound up buying the entire complex.  At this time, there were over 200 students attending.  The Escondido Charter High School was on its way!  He had simply grown the traditional  school year by year until in 2000, the first graduating class received their diplomas.

It’s been growing ever since.

Snyder founded Heritage K-8 Charter School in 2003.  These two schools now comprise the Escondido Charter School District (ECSD). Snyder serves as the Executive Director of ECSD and is very active in the Charter School movement. He generously gives of his time to advise, consult and promote Charter Schools.

Coach Snyder is passionate about his school, his students, his parents, his philosophies.

“I?learned from Coach Embry that you had to challenge kids - as athletes, and as scholars.  You have to challenge them to do better than they think they can do . . .you have to teach them that it’s important to learn the fundamentals, whether in sports, in education, or in life.  You see the professional football players?  They practice the exact same fundamentals as a high school football player does.  Why?  Because it’s a fundamental part of the game.  You have to master the fundamentals if you want to perform well.  So it is with work in the classroom, in the work place, in life itself.  You have to learn and practice, over and over, certain fundamentals.  Reading, writing, math . . . they all have fundamentals you must learn and apply if you want to excel.  That’s what we teach.

Our goal is to teach our students the great American Tradition - to prepare them for college.  That’s why we always have assemblies celebrating Veteran’s Day, celebrating the Memorial Day Holiday, the Fourth of July . . . we want our great American Heritage to sink in; for the kids to appreciate what has made this country such a great country.  The many statues we have around the campus provides an almost subliminal reminder that you, as a student, are part of this great nation and its heritage.  

Now that Coach Snyder had formed his Charter High School he decided to embark on yet another ambitious goal.  Remember his philosphy of challenging oneself to do more than he thought possible?  Well, observe.

No Charter School had ever built their own Charter School building.  Wasn’t feasible.  Charters were given for only five years.  Who was going to finance a busines that could only prove it would be viable for only five years?  No way would you ever be able to sell bonds for a school that had only a five year life span guaranteed by contract.

But Dennis Snyder found a Sacramento bonding agency that liked what they heard from this passionate young man.  They came down to Escondido, looked around, talked to the city council, talked to merchants, talked to parents.

Yes, they said, we’ll sell your bonds.

True to their word, they sold $9.8 million in bonds and in 2003, Dennis Snyder built his Esconido Charter High School Campus at 1868 E. Valley Parkway, in Escondido.

It’s a beautiful campus with well planned facilities.  An example of how well he planned is the state-of-the-art American Spirit Theater he built.  A 400 seat venue, it offers an intimate setting for the audience to enjoy whatever presentation is offered.  Recently, Coach Snyder has begun to bring in entertainment concerts.  In February, the school featured the Creedence Clearwater Revised Band, a tribute band for Creedence Clearwater Revival.  Just three weeks ago the school featured a Neil Diamond tribute band that rocked the house and thoroughly entertained the audience.  More concerts are planned.

Speaking of those concerts, several students participated in providing the sound and lighting for the concerts.  Jared Planter handled the sound so well that the Diamond Is Forever! crew have hired him as a professional sound engineer for subsequent shows; as to lights, Coach Snyder recommended a young man, Noah Holliday, who, with his brother, Eli, put together, on two days notice, a thoroughly professional light show in support of the concert.  Noah was asked if he would like an ongoing job of providing lighting for future concerts . . . . he declined.  Reason?? He just signed up for a class in biochemistry, will soon graduate (as valedictorian) and will then enter UCLA for pre-med studies, en route to becoming a physician.  His brother, Eli, also declined. ?He already has a full time job and he is also taking some pretty heavy academic courses.
One senses that Coach Snyder has, indeed, instilled the philosophy in these three young men of “challenge yourself to do more than you think you can do.”

Coach Snyder smiles when he talks about the Holliday boys.  “There’s eight of them in that family.  With that many kids, one of them will sometimes turn out as the black sheep.  Not with this family.  Every one of those kids are top peformers and first class kids.  It’s just a great family.”

When we talk about challenging oneself, Coach Snyder is a living example of ‘walking the walk.’ Back in 1966, when he was earning a whole $5200 a year, he challenged himself by buying an 8-acre plot of land, and planted it to avocados.  He and Diane would build their home on that property.  “I would come home from teaching and coaching and head for the avocado grove,”?says Snyder.?“I was bone tired but I?had to put down fertilizer, trim trees, pull weeds, anything and everything you have to do to tend to an avacado grove.  I?didn’t expect it to be easy, we had to work, we had to challenge ourselves.  We did it and today Diane and I?can enjoy the fruits of our labor.  This is what we try to instill in our students.”

“There are about 800 charter schools in California,”?said Snyder.  “Every charter school has its own philosophy.  This gives parents the option to choose public schools or a charter school.”

It’s not all a bed of roses within the charter school systems.  “For example, the average public school gets $11,000 per student of ADA (Average Daily Attendance) dollars.  Charter schools gets about $6400 per student.  Plus, we have to pay for our schools, not the taxpayer.  The taxpayer foots the bill for the physical plant and facilities of the public school system.  All of that is on our nickle.  We are able to attract top teachers but they work for about 30% less than if they were in the public school system.  We have a retirement plan but what really attracts them is the freedom to be innovative in their teaching.  We treat our people fairly but we work with them to develop programs and teaching methods that improve performance.  If they have an idea they want to try, we’re usually right behind them, encouraging them to give it a try.  They have smaller classes, an average of 22 students.  We give them all the equipment they need to teach, fewer students, and mandatory extra writing and math classes.  Just as the teacher needs classes and tools to teach, so the student needs tools and classes to learn.

We look for teachers with an entrepreneurial spirit - innovative, creative, dedicated.  One example of this is the recent introduction of on-line lessons.  We incorporate today’s technology into the teaching and learning mold.  It appears to be working because we’ve been ablt to attract outstanding teachers to Escondido Charter High School.  

Currently, there is a waiting list for students wanting to enter the traditional school; for the individual learning program there are still openings.

Snyder has concerns about the educational system.
“Education costs have gone up 100 fold and what have we gotten for it?  The dropout rates are high, kids graduate from high school who can’t read or write; test scores have not gone up.  They have flat-lined.  California spends $50 billion per year - last year $52 billion was spend on grades K-14.  

My goal is to show how that money is spent.  We have a lean staff, we make do with less, and all of our staff are at-will employees.  They have to perform or they are gone from our system.  

Under the public school system you have tenure.  Good luck on getting rid of bad teachers.  I?hope our educaton system in California doesn’t get as bad as in New York State.  There, they have teachers, on full salary, sitting around playing cards, doing real estate deals, because they can’t find classrooms for them.  Still, they can’t terminate them, because of tenure.  It’s just plan silly.  And a tragic waste of money.

Fortunately, we have a very cooperative local school district.  They work closely with us to ensure that parents have and are free to exercise their choice as to where their kids are educated.

It’s been hard work, growing Escondido Charter High School, but it is working.  We are filling a need for both parents and students.  We intentionally don’t accept federal funding because there are simply too many strings attached.  We prefer to remain independent and meet the needs of our parents and student as our local community tells us . . . not some bureaucrat in Washington, D. C.”

Coach Snyder isn’t done growing yet.  Not by a long shot.

Plans are underway for expansion into the new Heritage Digital Academy, a combination of traditional education and technology - a more effective and efficient way of teaching and learning.

Remodeling is under way on buildings across the street from the present campus and it is anticipated they will have 200 additional students next year.

They plan on classes K-1 next year and then adding a class each year.  Two years from now they plan on moving over to the new facility.  The new school will feature 200-300 students at the high school level, 400-500 in the K-8 classes, and about 200 in the 7th and 8th grades.

The bulk of the school funding comes from ADA sources.  Each student is paid for on the basis of 180 days per year, but payment is only made when the students are on campus, in class.  If they skip school, the school loses money for that student for that day.

Coach Snyder has a few ideas on how the education system might be improved.  Again, he wans to see transparency.  How is the money being spent, where does it go?

“I think a voucher system is worth looking at.  Let’s say parents were allocated $10,000 per year per student.  They then have the option of going to a public school, a private school, or a charter school.  These become parent options.  They spend their voucher where they think they’ll get the most and best edeucation for their child.

The Teacher’s Union would oppose such legislation, however.  They are very powerful and have a strong vested intereset in retaining the status quo.  The state legislature, being controlled by the Democrats, who have been liberally financed by unions, is more likely to oppose such legislation because of the powerful hold unions have on them.

The unions have made it very clear they are not in favor of choice . . .and they don’t like the competition of charter schools.

It appears that charter schools and their parents need to team up to form a strong lobbying team if they want favorable legislative support.

Governor Brown, when he was in Oakland, started a charter school and it was, and is, very successful.  We know he supports the idea of charter schools but, still, the unions supported him in his election.  Will he be able to overcome  the unions opposition to expanding the charter school movement?  Time will tell.”

The charter school movement is growing nationwide.  There is resistance, chiefly by teacher’s unions, and there are some efforts to shut it down but those efforts will be unsuccessful.  “The parents would create a parent revolution,” Coach Snyder says.  “We set high standards, high expectations, and we expect more hard work from both our students and our faculty.  That appears to be exactly what parents want.

The huge California Education Code, the built in bureaucracy, and the opposition of teacher’s unions, combine to make California’s education system an unmanageable, unaccountable operation.  

Perhaps an excellent example of how a chaotic education system can be toppled quickly is best demonstrated by post-Katrina New Orleans, Louisiana.

The storm that swamped that city three years ago also effectively swept away a public school system with a dismal record and faint prospects of getting better. Before Hurricane Katrina, educator John Alford said, he toured schools and found "kids just watching movies" in classes where "low expectations were the norm."

Charter Schools Take Hold in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Now Alford is one of many new principals leading an unparalleled education experiment, with possible lessons for troubled urban schools in the District and elsewhere. New Orleans, in a post-Katrina flash, has become the first major city in which more than half of all public school students attend charter schools.

For these new schools with taxpayer funding and independent management, old rules and habits are out. No more standard hours, seniority, union contracts, shared curriculum or common textbooks. In are a crowd of newcomers seeking to lift standards and achievement. They compete for space, steal each other's top teachers and wonder how it is all going to work.

Alford, 33, launched Langston Hughes Academy for kindergarten through sixth grade in a stately, yellow, peachy-red mid-city school building that withstood eight feet of floodwater after the August 2005 hurricane. One day this spring, he strolled a third-floor corridor that had fresh paint, student work and college banners on the walls. "Thinking about my kids keeps me up at night," he said, "but the larger mission is there -- like, wow . . . we will never have this chance again, and if it is successful, other cities should do it, too."

Some cities are moving in this direction, but none has ever moved so far, so fast. Three in every ten D.C. public school students are in charters, a much larger percentage than in most cities. The New Orleans charter school penetration rate is much greater: 53 percent of the post-Katrina enrollment of 33,200 students, according to school officials. Before the hurricane, charters had about 2 percent of the city's 67,000 public students.

Many parents in the years since the storm have sought spaces in Roman Catholic and other private schools, but charters have become the most popular option because they are free. Charter leaders acknowledge that their schools must produce achievement gains or the experiment will flop.

Nationally, research shows little difference between average test scores for charters and for regular public schools. Experts say the quality of charter schools varies as much as the quality of regular schools.  But, it is early in the experiment.

Some state officials want to give tax-funded vouchers to help students attend private schools. Eighty-three percent of New Orleans public school families have low incomes.

Before the flood, New Orleans usually ranked near the bottom nationally in reading and math.

National charter leaders said they had not planned a massive takeover after Katrina. They said they just wanted to help. "Charter educators and friends took games and books and organized dozens of small classrooms while the national government scratched its head over what to do," said Jeanne Allen, president of the pro-charter Center for Education Reform, based in the District. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), one of the most successful nonprofit charter groups, was running a New Orleans school before the hurricane and managed to start a school for flood evacuees in Houston within six weeks.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, reacting to the emergency, released $20 million in federal funds set aside for charters. Charter groups and teachers, eager for a chance to make a difference, rushed in.

Among the first arrivals was Ben Kleban. The former financial planner, who switched to high school teaching in Philadelphia because he "hated" his life, had planned to start a school in New York. But he detoured to Louisiana.

"I couldn't see any other way they were going to be able to start schools without charters," he said. At age 27, he founded the New Orleans College Prep charter school, ushering in sixth-graders to a refurbished school building in the central city part of town.

Before Katrina, Louisiana had passed a law friendly to charters, so Kleban and other charter founders faced few obstacles. Paul G. Vallas, a former Chicago and Philadelphia schools chief, was hired last year to run the Recovery School District, which splits responsibility for regular public school oversight with the Orleans Parish School Board. Vallas was allowed to add charters to his district. Charters "helped us get back in the game" quickly, he said, because the new schools could tap federal funds and private foundations.

Some new charters report strong results. The KIPP Believe College Prep and KIPP McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts more than tripled math scores and more than doubled reading scores of their fifth-graders last year, according to KIPP's data.

The race to find skilled teachers can become contentious, particularly for ambitious leaders such as Alford and Kleban, both with master's degrees in business administration from Harvard University. Alford said "the biggest challenge is competition for talent." Kleban said he considered the fight for skilled teachers "a short-term evil" and applauded the recent announcement that Teach for America, a recruiting organization, will send 250 teachers to New Orleans this summer, doubling last year's contingent.

But for now, many New Orleans parents are embracing charter schools.

Parents seem to be embracing charter schools in North County as well.  In addition to Escondido Charter High School. Escondido boasts the Classical Academy, offering classes in both K-8 as well as high school; in Oceanside, the Coastal Classical Academy is moving along just fine, in San Marcos, you’ll find High Tech High, and a smaller school, Dehesa.  Vista has a Classical Academy but the School District in Vista is “ornery,” and makes life tough for the charter school movement.

San Diego County has the second highest population of charter schools in California, with 60 plus; Los Angeles County has the highest with 130 or more.  

“I?think one of the reasons we are such a strong charter school is because we go to great lengths to involve all of our people in the operation.  It begins with the students, but it means that, no matter who you are, whether you are the school custodian, a member of the admin staff, a member of the faculty . . . you are a key and integral part of what makes us successful.  We have an All-Staff Meeting once a month where we recognize our people for the great work they are doing, where they hear first hand from me how much I think of them, how much I depend upon them.  We exchange ideas, we discuss plans, it’s like a family get-together.  And it works,” said Coach Snyder.

During our interview, we observed that most of us living on this planet would like to leave it in a bit better shape than when we found it.  Some of us are more successful than others.  We opined that if Coach Snyder were to leave us tomorrow, he could look back on the campus he created, the kids he trained and educated, the kids he graduated, the kids he saw go on to college (and some of whom came back to teach in his school) and he could rest easy.  He had done more than most and he had, indeed, left this planet in much better shape than when he found it.

“Well, we sure tried,” he said.