Race for Space

An unorthodox school for dropout risks is still searching for a campus, leaving students in learning limbo

It is a scorching June afternoon, and Wayne MacDonald, his shock of white hair blowing in the light breeze, stands in front of a vacant Bayview office park, surveying an empty building with unconcealed excitement. Of all the real estate he's looked at in the past few weeks, this building is the most ideal for the Urban Pioneer Experiential Academy, a charter school MacDonald plans to open in the fall.

Based on a program MacDonald started about 25 years ago at McAteer High, the charter school will expand on a curriculum that has been widely credited for turning around the lives of at-risk teens and high school near-dropouts through its unconventional teaching methods, which include activities like a 12-day wilderness expedition, spending two weeks on a ranch, and running ropes courses.

As MacDonald tours the cavernous Bayview building, he mentally converts the reception area into administrative offices and envisions small conference rooms as computer labs or study areas. He is excited about the building's possibilities, but he is also anxious.

After a nearly two-year battle with the San Francisco Unified School District for the charter school, MacDonald now has just two months to get the academy up and running before the first day of class. He needs to find a school site so he can begin working on other aspects of the program, like hiring more teachers. Yet sky-high rents make the Bay Area one of the most difficult places in the state for a charter school to find space. The Bayview property, too, is beyond MacDonald's price range, though he holds out hope that the owner of the building will cut him a deal.

To make matters even more pressing, if MacDonald can't find a site in time, about 90 returning Urban Pioneer students -- many of whom were on the verge of dropping out before they entered the program -- will be left in limbo, unregistered for a San Francisco school next fall.

The district simply "forgot about them," MacDonald insists, hinting at the contention he believes exists between him and the SFUSD.

But because charter schools operate with a great degree of autonomy, the district is no longer responsible for enrolling students who opt to join a charter school, district spokesperson Jackie Wright explains. "These students were already enrolled in Urban Pioneer [before it became a charter school], and ... the expectation was that these students would continue with the school," Wright says. "Unless we heard from them otherwise, there was to be no action from the district."

The situation arose primarily because of a strange convergence of circumstances: the simultaneous closing of McAteer High and Urban Pioneer's transition to a charter school. The shuttering of McAteer meant students had to pick a new school for the fall, but because of bureaucracy, the Urban Pioneer Experiential Academy wasn't an official choice yet.

Wright says the Urban Pioneer students were notified about placement procedures, and that they can still register for a traditional high school at any time.

But Linda Mickelson, a parent of an Urban Pioneer junior, says the registration issue makes the search for a school site that much more dire. "If this school [Urban Pioneer Experiential Academy] doesn't get a building, [the students will] have nowhere to go," Mickelson says.

For most of its life, the Urban Pioneer program has been an offshoot of McAteer High School, with classrooms in two spacious bungalows and an airy building that used to be a metal shop. The program takes in students of all stripes, but Urban Pioneer consists primarily of kids who were flunking out of traditional school. As a last resort, a school counselor might refer a student to Urban Pioneer, which uses wilderness expeditions, ropes course training, community service, and career internships to teach life skills like motivation, leadership, and responsibility. Textbooks are rarely used in the Urban Pioneer curriculum, which according to MacDonald teaches subjects like English, math, and science through essay writing, boat building, wilderness survival training, and organic farming.

The approach is unorthodox, and critics say that Urban Pioneer students lag behind in their academics. But MacDonald says that his students are learning valuable life lessons, and that most move on to college or careers. Fifteen Urban Pioneer students have won Congressional Medals, and every year several students receive scholarships from programs like Outward Bound and Habitat for Humanity. Some students eventually go to schools like Yale, UC Berkeley, or Sarah Lawrence.

For most of its existence, the Urban Pioneer program has had a harmonious relationship with the San Francisco Unified School District, but tension allegedly erupted in the last couple of years. MacDonald says he noticed problems arising with administrative changes at McAteer High, and was told by an assistant principal that it was "unwise to question the system."

MacDonald, an undisputedly outspoken and rambunctious man, points to a series of frustrating incidents. In August 2001, Urban Pioneer was moved from McAteer to two portable classrooms on 43rd Avenue in the Outer Sunset -- half of its original space. The move forced some Urban Pioneer students to travel up to two hours to attend school, where two classes sometimes ran simultaneously in the same portable classroom because of a lack of space. For several months the site had only two bathrooms for 120 students and four full-time teachers, and no drinking water.

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