Manzanita Charter School Finds Home on Air Force Base
The organizers of Manzanita Public Charter School did not intend to open their school on a military base. It just worked out that way for Kathy Grbac and Lynnda Palmer, the pair that spearheaded the start-up of the school, which opened in 2008 on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Grbac, the school’s manager, said in an interview with the National Charter School Resource Center (Resource Center) that she and Palmer, the principal, had planned to open near downtown Lompoc, California, to accommodate the underserved students that were the focus of their charter application. Instead, the Lompoc Unified School District (LUSD), the authorizer empowered to grant the charter, offered a base elementary school site that LUSD was closing.
Grbac said that they took the site and haven’t looked back. The K-6 school is nearly fully enrolled, with about 400 students, about 75 percent of them from Lompoc and about 25 percent from the families connected to the military base.
Manzanita is one of at least seven charter schools that are now or are expected to soon be operating on military installations. Charter schools on military bases are the focus of the Resource Center’s January 2011 newsletter. The arrangements and circumstances of the charter schools on bases differ, and the Manzanita schools offers a new variant, mainly that it is located on a public part of the base and that it serves mostly children who are not connected to the military.
Manzanita Public Charter School is located on an eastern part of the 100,000-acre base that is open to the public. There are no security checkpoints. It is 10 miles from Lompoc, which means a 40-minute bus ride coming and going to school for about 300 students. The school contracts with a transportation service that runs four buses, costing $250,000 to $300,000 annually.
The school, built in 1961, sits on a 15-acre site. It was once amid base housing, but the roughly 60-year-old structures have been torn down. What’s left are concrete pads, streets and landscaping. “It’s really kind of bizarre,” she said.
The school leases its facility from LUSD, paying 3 percent of the school’s revenue from the state.
Down the road, but still on the open part of the base, is a district middle school, with about the same enrollment makeup as Manzanita. Another elementary school, also run by the district, is located on the closed and secured part of the base, the area where base housing is now located and where Manzanita pulls some of its enrollment. In the school’s first year, it drew about 70 students from military families and 175 from downtown Lompoc. A base liaison provides support to assist with issues military-connected students face in school.
The public area of the base is still thoroughly patrolled by the military police, she said.
The school utilities come with irregularities. Grbac said the power system is “outdated and arcane” and service can be unreliable. But her enthusiasm for the location remains. “Being on a military base is a huge positive for us,” she said. “It just all fell into place,” Grbac said. “It was just meant to be.”
The school received federal Impact Aid of about $350,000 for 2009-10, according to Grbac. The program, managed by the U.S. Department of Education, is designed to aid school districts that face additional demands due to federal operations that are tax-exempt, such as military bases.
Grbac said she conducts surveys to determine the number of students who are military-connected and then applies for the aid through the Department of Education. The first year, a Department of Education adviser was assigned to walk her through the process. Charter schools that serve significant populations of military-connected students can apply for the support, regardless of where the schools are located.