Teachers will have to find new positions

They thought they were facing a lecture for smoking behind the Columbia Academy classrooms when Larry Lockett met them Tuesday morning.

Junior Elyse Early stepped from the bus to find the school's principal walking toward her.

There's a meeting at 8:30 a.m., he told the students.

Early walked out of the wind and overcast skies into the classroom, took her seat, and thought about cigarettes.

Then she listened as he broke the news.

When it was over, teacher Joe Parsons sat in his chair, his head cradled in his hands.

Jessica Koistinen, their other teacher, cried. She knew it was coming because she heard the decision the night before.

It was silent. No one knew what to say.

Come June 30, Columbia Academy will no longer operate as a charter school, but will be absorbed into the district's alternative program.

Following an explanation of the district's financial situation, the Columbia Academy Advisory Council Monday recommended ending the school's charter, originally approved just one month ago.

"The council is very disappointed," said chairwoman Molly Filori. "Because of the cash-flow problems with the school district, the council felt we had no choice but to terminate the charter."

The academy is sponsored by the Astoria School District, and all the revenue for the school flows through district funds and is counted as part of its income. With $1.4 million in budget cuts, coupled with declining enrollment, district officials say they can't afford to hand over the chunk of change necessary to keep the charter school going.

"If we would have stayed in this mode for the next couple years, it would have drained us," Superintendent Mike Sowder said.

None of those involved in dreaming the academy to life saw this coming.

"We just recently realized the severity of the situation of district finances," said curriculum director Marilyn Lane. "There is nothing that we did as a charter school that should have caused this to happen."

The academy council was appraised of the situation Thursday. Monday's meeting was the first time they heard a full explanation. It was also the day they made gut-wrenching decision to end a school two years in the making.

Sowder said preliminary plans include maintaining the district's relationship with Tongue Point Job Corps Center, the federal work-training program, and salvaging the academy's curriculum and using it in Astoria High School's alternative program. The buildings at TPJCC, where Columbia Academy is located, will likely be used for the school's alternative program. One teacher from the high school will take over.

The current academy teachers, Parsons and Koistinen, two of the most recent hires to the district and at the bottom of the seniority list, will have to look for new positions.

They make the difference, Elyse said.

"Joe and I have had a lot of talks," she said. "I want to be a writer and he is one of the people who has inspired me to keep writing and keep going, keep pushing toward the goal."

Koistinen said the charter's termination is a big loss for the kids.

"The students are doing really well, and it's sad that they don't know exactly how they're going to do that in the future," she said.

Lane said she is hopeful that the work to build the academy wasn't a waste.

"We won't lose that knowledge," she said. "Hopefully we can create something out of the ashes, something through the alternative education model that can continue to serve those kids."

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