Petaluma could soon welcome new charter school

A new charter school promising Petaluma middle- and high school students an education centered on equity and inclusivity, hands-on learning and a robust travel program will soon seek approval from Petaluma City Schools.

The North Bay education, nonprofit and business interests behind Magnolia Global Academy for Leaders say the school will petition for charter authorization next month, with the aim of starting classes in August 2022.

Inspired by San Diego-based High Tech High and Napa’s New Tech High, Magnolia charter school would eventually serve 600 students in grades 7-12. School leaders, including Design Team lead Gianna Biaggi, emphasized the small-school environment, experiential learning and travel program as distinct to the Magnolia approach, which is also heavily influenced by social justice themes.

“The MGAL team believes that by including the most vulnerable or marginalized people in our school design, we can create an inclusive school where all students feel seen, heard respected and loved,” Biaggi said via email.

School officials are still in the process of searching for a facility, and it wasn’t clear if the school’s leadership – comprised of a seven-member design team, nine trustees and five community advisors – had targeted a specific part of Petaluma for the new school. But Biaggi said the school’s nonprofit arm would work to raise money to ensure transportation for all students.

To operate, Magnolia Global Academy for Leaders will need approval from the Petaluma City Schools Board of Education, which is considered the authorizing district. It would be the first charter school authorized since Petaluma Accelerated Charter School was approved in 2015. The current board, as well as new Petaluma City Schools Superintendent Matthew Harris, have been publicly supportive of school choice.

Made up of a self-described cast of “prominent movers and shakers,” the new charter will bring educational and political bonafides to the charter authorization process.

Among the team that has gained local, national and international recognition for work in education, nonprofit and corporate settings, Magnolia Global Academy for Leaders boasts trustees Jennifer Gray Thompson, executive director of Rebuild NorthBay Foundation; Yensi Jacobo, Petaluma People Services Center director of youth programs; Beth Fox, Sonoma Community Center director of development and marketing; and Jeanne Kearns, American Heart Association North Bay executive director.

“We are a diverse group and we seek to include as many different perspectives as possible,” Biaggi said. “We recognize that we are not perfect, but that together we are stronger and more inclusive. We are constantly asking ourselves, ‘Who is missing from the conversation?’”

Biaggi said the need for the Magnolia model was made apparent after the results of a countywide survey revealed the majority of Sonoma County students don’t feel a sense of belonging in their school communities, nor do they feel prepared to enter the workforce.

Along with efforts to foster a welcoming, inclusive environment, school leaders plan to require high school students to complete internships and job shadowing, as well as travel domestically or internationally during their time at Magnolia Global Academy.

“The future of education is changing, and MGAL will be a leader in ensuring that education in Petaluma and Sonoma County is equitable, sustainable and globalized,” said Biaggi.

Biaggi, a city of Sonoma native, is joined on the design team by Haley Godbold, a Bay Area native who earned her master’s in education in 2019; Kinyatta Reynolds, an elementary school physical education teacher in Petaluma; Lisa Gottfried, digital design teacher at New Technology High School in Napa; Paloma Apgar, a chef instructor with Sonoma Teen Services; Aidy Lacy, music director at Lattice Educational Services in Santa Rosa; and Seana Dooley McDonald, an English and social studies teacher in Petaluma.

Reynolds, a leader in the local Black Lives Matter movement, and the creative force behind the community-building Halloween sign game “Petaluma Boo,” is also listed as one of nine trustees on the Magnolia website.

She was one of two Black women – along with Petaluma City Schools Board of Education President Joanna Paun – who were targeted for layoffs by St. Vincent de Paul High School last year, a move that sparked protests.

Along with Reynolds, Fox, Jacobo and Kearns, Magnolia Global Academy for Leaders boasts the following trustees: Lotasha Thomas, a former controller at Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma-Marin; Rod Harris, senior academic leader with Sebastopol-based international study group SAI Programs; Kesa Labanowski, site coordinator with Petaluma People Services Mentor Me program; and Vanessa Luna Shannon, former Gateway to College Academy director.

Community Advisory Council members are Lyndsey Burcina, the 5th District representative for Sonoma County’s Commission on Human Rights; Joyce Galindo, an advocate for sexual assault survivors at Sonoma County’s Rape Crisis Center; Tanya Bruno, director of operations and human resources at the Healdsburg School; Chad Zibelman, CEO of sub-Saharan Africa sustainable development group The Sonder Project; and Megan Kelly, a former education administrator who works with Petaluma People Services Center.

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at [email protected], 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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