San Diego County Board of Education to make decision on SOUL charter school

The founders of SOUL have brought their Encinitas charter school petition before the San Diego County Board of Education (SDCOE) after being denied by San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) last year. SOUL co-founders Marisa Bruyneel and Michael Grimes, as well as a number of SOUL supporters, advocated for the new school at a hearing on Jan. 11.

SOUL, which stands for School of Universal Learning, aims to open the 7-12th grade school this fall, with a capacity that would reach 600 students. They have yet to pin down a location for the campus.

Bruyneel told the board that she and Grimes set out to create a school that was “unlike any other,” one that emphasizes holistic education and connects students to their life’s passion and purpose.

“SOUL was founded upon taking a hard look at the issues that pervade our schools and finding the solutions to create anew. We have examined every part of the school day and innovated it,” Bruyneel said. “SOUL students will become lifelong learners, global citizens, helpful adults, successful entrepreneurs and the CEO of their lives.”

After last week’s hearing, the board will deliberate and take action on whether to approve or deny SOUL at a special meeting on Thursday, Jan. 19.

According to Laura Duzyk, SDCOE assistant superintendent of business services, SOUL’s petition is being evaluated by the county board’s charter review committee on whether it meets education code requirements, whether the education program is sound, and whether the petitioner can demonstratively execute that program.

If the appeal is granted, the county board assumes responsibility as the charter authority. If denied, SOUL can submit to the state board.

According to Bruyneel and Grimes, SOUL’s mission is to “transform the public education system.” Academics are a combination of experience-based and project-based learning and required electives, including entrepreneurship and essential life skills. All of the Common Core State Standards will be mastered and students will be assessed with MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) tests and Smarter Balanced Assessment tests like all public schools.

A typical day includes their unique “Integra” program in which students start the day by setting their intentions and meditating, have a midday focus on self-development and an end-of-the-day reflection session.

Grimes’ vision for the holistic school approach has been guided by the memory of his little brother, a teenager who was gifted academically, thrived in sports and was popular in school but never understood his emotional being or his personal self. Grimes was completing his master’s degree in educational administration when his brother committed suicide at age 17.

Grimes said his brother’s death confirmed to him the need to teach to the students’ whole being and the importance of personal development at a young age.

The SDUHSD district opted not to provide testimony at the meeting, instead submitting last year’s report on SOUL’s charter petition. The SDUHSD board had a chance to deny or to approve the school with conditions, but SOUL decided to decline the conditional approval option, leaving the board only the option to deny, which it did in October.

Per the district’s report, SOUL presented an “unrealistic financial and operational plan”; noting: “They appear to lack the necessary background in education administration and leadership that is critical to effectively operate a charter school.”

The district was looking for a more comprehensive and accurate list of start-up costs, competitive salaries and health benefits, costs of books and supplies and budgeted expenses that account for SOUL’s plan to provide musical instruments and cameras to students, after-school tutoring, and monthly workshops for parent/guardians that are free of charge, such as yoga and cooking classes.

In the area of curriculum, the district wanted to see a more comprehensive description of the educational program.

SOUL received endorsements at the hearing that differed from SDUHSD’s assessments.

Eileen Logue, business director at Charter School Management Corporation, told the SDCOE board she finds SOUL to be fiscally viable and that they are slated to be the recipients of a start-up grant. Jennifer Reiter-Cook, the California Charter Schools Association director of school development for Southern California, said that she could state with confidence that SOUL’s petition is legally-compliant, educationally sound and research-based.