When Ruth Dutton couldn’t find adequate educational support for her gifted kindergartener, she decided to take it upon herself to become an educational entrepreneur of sorts. “There was no effort to adjust curriculum or instruction to differentiate for her needs,” said the Brandman University master’s degree graduate. “I had gone through the same schools in Visalia, and when I did there were efforts made to meet my needs. I couldn’t just sit by and think that it's not happening anymore in Visalia.” Therefore, Dutton founded her own charter school in Visalia.
Laying The Foundation
Sycamore Valley Academy is in its third year of operation and this fall serves nearly 300 students, just two years after opening with 129 kids. “I noticed that the gifted population were at risk and weren’t being served as well as they could be, so as I started to research best practices in gifted education I found that the charter school model was the best vehicle to make it happen,” said Dutton.
Her quest to open her own charter school began in 2010 and was anything but an easy process. “Definitely a difficult undertaking,” said Dutton. “As I share with my friends, I may only have one school launch in me. It is not something I think I could do again. But certainly, I was compelled by the need in the community and I am affirmed by how successful it has been.”
With a full-time staff of 36, half being teaching faculty, Sycamore Valley Academy is founded on the constructivist approach to education. It is a philosophy Dutton learned while getting her teaching credential back in 2003, at what was then known as Chapman University College (now Brandman University). Constructivist teaching is based on the belief that learning occurs as students are actively involved in a process of meaning and knowledge construction as opposed to passively receiving information. Learners are the makers of meaning and knowledge. Constructivist teaching fosters critical thinking, and creates motivated and independent learners.
Navigating Through The Logistics
“The toughest part of all of this was all the people parts,” said Dutton. “Attracting and hiring good staff, recruiting students and communicating with the community what we are offering, because I didn’t want students to choose us because we were ‘an’ option, I wanted them to choose us because of what we offered.”
The political side of opening a charter school was also challenging. “The very nature of opening a charter school suggests that there is something that is not happening in the traditional district.”
Sycamore Valley Academy is a tuition-free K-8 school that needed the permission and support of the Visalia Unified School District before opening. “We are the very first autonomous charter in the district to be authorized by VUSD.” The district approved Dutton’s charter request while turning down two others.
While Dutton assumes all the financial risk of operating the Charter school, the school does get state and federal funding. “Charter schools are public schools, publicly funded just like district schools are, but there are some revenue streams we don’t have access to. We typically have budgets that are 10-15% less per pupil, than districts would receive for that pupil.”
Reflecting On Success
Today, Dutton is the principal and superintendent of Sycamore Valley Academy. When asked if it was worth it to start up her own Charter school, she answered quickly and without hesitation. “One hundred percent worth it. It was the realization of my dream! We just started our school year, and at a staff development meeting I posed this question to my staff ‘besides a paycheck, what does Sycamore Valley Academy give you?’ and the resounding answer was ‘hope’. Hope was on my paper as well: hope for my community. To me it’s about shaping the young minds and learners in my community.”