Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Trailblazing Vacaville's Buckingham Charter Magnet High School

By Claire St. John

VACAVILLE - Lately, public schools have been taking a lot of heat for focusing too much on college-prep classes and not enough on vocational education. Not everyone wants to go to college, parents and students complain.

At the same time, it is essential to have college-prep classes available so students can continue their educations.

Vacaville's Buckingham Charter Magnet High School, which has been a part of the school district since 1994, has solved that problem by offering classes that aren't only college prep but college standard, as well as training in media and visual arts and information technology.

"The tools they work with are studio standard," principal Bob Hampton said. "Some of the things they do are off the charts. It's a very elite group."

Student films have been shown at film fests around the world, and yearly at Vacaville's Brenden Theatres. Students run a news program on campus with anchors, field reporters, cameramen and technicians.

The school's film department gives students hands-on experience in lighting, filming, directing, producing, editing and acting as grips, gaffers and sound recorders.

With all this experience, Buckingham's graduates have found themselves actively recruited, either by film schools, art schools or movie studios.

"The media/visual skills are comparable to those learned in college," Hampton said.


Charter schools are becoming more and more inventive in their efforts to serve students. Buckingham Charter School, the state's 56th, has been working on its philosophy since it opened in 1994.

It started out as an independent study program for students from kindergarten to ninth grade, something the district didn't offer at the time.

"We were part of that first wave," Hampton said. "I've been very involved in the whole charter movement."

Hampton has a long history in education, but when legislation for charter schools in California was passed in 1992, he thought a charter would be a perfect fit for Vacaville.

"We were looking to service kids going out of the district," he said.

Two years ago, enrollment reached 1,200 students each of whom met with a teacher once or twice a week and did most of their work at home.

Soon after, Buckingham became an on-site, full-service high school that limited its numbers to about 400, to give students plenty of one-on-one instruction as well as the opportunity to explore their interests.

"No. 1, we're college prep," Hampton said.

And indeed, the school boasts 22 advanced placement classes, which are accepted as college credit at some universities.

"We've got more AP classes than anyone in the state," Hampton said.

Choice is a good thing

Buckingham students come from Vacaville as well as Fairfield, Suisun City and Dixon. If they felt like making the commute every day, students could come from as far away as San Diego or Crescent City. Anyone in California is eligible to attend a Californian charter school.

For Mary Soufi and her twins, Alexander and Basil, the flexibility of Buckingham is perfect.

Alexander and Basil were home-schooled, taking some college classes and traveling into Davis for other classes.

But when Buckingham Charter School became Buckingham Charter Magnet High School two years ago, the twins signed up.

"They like challenging academics, but they also like having the extra things that they are picking up there in the media arts," Mary Soufi said.

Soufi's philosophy is that no school is perfect, but because Buckingham offers a choice from districting, it is invaluable.

"I like the idea that everyone thinks about the choices there can be and not to assume there is not choice," Soufi said. "The reason I want people to know about Buckingham is so they know there is an alternative."

More freedom

Even though Buckingham is a charter school, and therefore has more freedoms than a standard high school, it still has to turn out the same, high standardized test scores required of all schools.

Many charters are magnet, meaning they offer special programs - such as Buckingham's visual and media arts and information technology - to attract interested students.

But some school districts - which are losing students to charters during a time of declining enrollment - accuse charters of pilfering students.

The main source of funding for schools is Average Daily Attendance. In other words, warm bodies in chairs equals cash. Losing kids means lay-offs, fewer programs and fewer services in schools.

"The battle is still very real and very bloody," Hampton said. "I think in the bigger picture of life, everyone knows choice is a good thing."

But when Buckingham made the switch from independent study to on-site high school, it dropped about 900 students.

When asked how the school managed that kind of financial hit, Hampton said, "We manage our finances very well. We planned the switch for two and a half to three years."

The school wants to stay small, Hampton said, topping out at about 400 students.

Tim Kruse, who manages Brenden Theatres, is a board member for the charter's foundation and has a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. He said he's thinking about sending his daughters to Buckingham for high school.

"What I really like about (Buckingham) is the kids are around the teachers and the environment is much more creative and the energy level seems to be much more positive and driven toward success."

Reach Claire St. John at 427-6955 or cstjohn@dailyrepublic.net.

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