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Gold Ribbon Award recommendation marks Manzanita turnaround

Gold Ribbon Award recommendation marks Manzanita turnaround

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Less than two years removed from a tumultuous spring that threatened Manzanita Public Charter School’s very existence, the campus is now closing in on receiving one of the state’s highest honors.

Suzanne Nicastro, Manzanita’s principal and executive director, confirmed Thursday that the school is being recommended to receive a Gold Ribbon Award from the California Department of Education based on the school’s individualized learning strategies, among other practices.

Although the state won’t officially announce the Gold Ribbon Award winners until April, Nicastro said the recommendation is a point of pride for the campus, which is located about seven miles north of Lompoc near the main gate at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

“We’re very excited,” she said. “Our parents have to put their kids on the bus from downtown (Lompoc) and all over town, and they send them out here because they believe in the school and they believe in what we do, so we take that very seriously. We’re very committed to them.”

Manzanita, a tuition-free public school for kindergarten through sixth-grade students, joins Fillmore Elementary School as the only Lompoc-area campuses to be recommended for the honor.

The award would mark a sharp turnaround for Manzanita, which was embroiled in controversy less than two years ago.

In early 2014, members of the school staff, as well as some parents, went public with complaints against one of the school's founders, who was also principal/executive director at the time.

That principal ultimately chose to step down during the controversy, while the school’s board of directors ended up ousting the school’s other co-founder. 

During that time, there was discussion about whether the school would be able to maintain its charter.

Nicastro stepped in during the summer of 2014 and had no doubt that the school could quickly get back on track, she said.

“I knew right away when I walked onboard that we had something special here at Manzanita, as far as classroom environment and what was happening for kids out here,” she said.

“It has been truly a journey for the staff to come to this place this year and finally feel like we’ve completely healed and we’re moving forward.”

She said receiving a Gold Ribbon Award would only reaffirm those initial beliefs.

“What it tells me, as a school leader, is that the bones for the school and the foundation for the school was always solid,” she said.

“The problems the school experienced a couple years ago were primarily the work of a few individuals who are not healthy. But the good work of the school was solid.”

Manzanita received the recommendation based on its Strength Based Workshop Model, which focuses on a lot of student-driven individualized instruction.

The model includes several programs — some of them new and some that have been tweaked from previous years.

“It was like the cake was here and it was already baked, but it hadn’t been frosted or decorated,” Nicastro said of those longtime practices.

The school also changed its schedule this year to focus on getting more out of students during the time they are on campus.

Under the new schedule, the school has what it calls “sacred learning time” from 10 a.m. until noon Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

During that time, the students have no interruptions as they focus on several learning programs.

All assemblies take place Wednesdays, and other activities and elective-style courses are held in the afternoons.

The school also changed up the learning environment. One example of those changes was the implementation of desk cycles — essentially stationary bikes with desktops — in classrooms.

The cycles, 12 of which were donated to the school free of charge, allow students to exert energy while reading and doing other classwork.

“I have seen some students greatly benefit from the movement,” said first-grade teacher Jenny Klinedinst, who initially acquired the cycles and has five of them in her classroom. “They are able to concentrate longer and attend to tasks for greater periods of time.

"Not everyone prefers them, and that's OK," she added. "They offer an option for my scholars, and that's why I love them.”

If Manzanita does, in fact, receive a Gold Ribbon Award, it will be the school’s first.

The school, which was founded in 2008, did not receive a gold ribbon during the inaugural year of the program last year and also had never received a California Distinguished School Award, which was the gold ribbon program’s predecessor.

Nicastro said the school will celebrate the honor, if it happens, during an open house next month.

“We’re kind of isolated out at Manzanita,” she said. “We’re not part of a school system; we’re on our own. So because of that, we don’t really know what to compare ourselves to sometimes.

"To have a team of professionals come in and spend a day with us and walk away not only validating us, but really telling us that we have an amazing learning environment for children, was really awesome.”

This story was amended on March 15 to clarify that one of the school’s co-founders chose to resign during the tumultuous spring 2014 semester and was not fired by the school’s board of directors.

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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Willis Jacobson covers news and other issues, primarily those that affect the Lompoc Valley and Vandenberg Air Force Base, for Lee Central Coast News. He is a graduate of The University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications.

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