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Charter school offers alternative education experience

Merced Scholars Charter School does things differently.

The sixth- through 12th-grade charter school has more than 100 students and stresses independent study and personalized learning. The students' homes are their classroom, but they check in with their instructors once a week at school headquarters, 801 W. 16th St.

Lori Gattuso, principal, said Merced Scholars Charter School is a public school with some of the flexibility of a private school. The charter school began in 2004-05 with about 30 students and has grown considerably since then.

Steven Gomes, county superintendent of schools, said it is a prime example how the Merced County Office of Education strives to provide appropriate alternative education for students.

"MCOE recognizes that when it comes to teaching students, one size does not fit all," Gomes said.

Gattuso said some charter students like a personalized environment and might not fit in at a large school setting. Some students need flexibility to accommodate schedules or family needs.

Student Joey Atchley said he decided to go to the charter school because there are a lot of distractions in regular public school. "Being home-schooled allows me to get my work done without those distractions," he said.

Gattuso said the 16th Street building includes a classroom, computer lab with Internet connections, biology lab and places where students can study for the high school exit exam, and take writing, history and employability workshops.

Holly Newlon, assistant superintendent for career and alternative education for the county schools office, said parents have told her their children flourished after enrolling at the charter school and were "pretty disengaged" in other settings.

"Merced Scholars Charter School provides a safe and personalized education for families who choose to home-school their children and want to ensure their learning is standards-based and rigorous," Newlon said.

Teacher Crystal Sousa said the school's program allows students to fashion an individualized learning plan customized to their specific needs. "It is rare in public education to find such an opportunity," Sousa said.

Gattuso said parents are partners in their children's education and meet regularly with the school's four credentialed teachers. College counselors meet with students and parents, and college placement tests are offered at the school site.

The charter school is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and the courses meet University of California and California State University requirements. The charter school has a strong connection with the Merced Elks Lodge and a great partnership with Merced College, Gattuso said.

Teacher Maria Villanueva said students, teachers and parents work together to ensure every student is successful and has an opportunity to shine.

Tara Davis, a parent, said Merced Scholars Charter School has given her children opportunities they would not have had in a traditional school setting. "They are able to work at a pace that works for their individual needs," Davis said.

Student Eric Hensley said he chose the charter school because it is a friendly environment and teachers are very interactive with their students. "This school helps students reach their academic goals at their own pace," Hensley said.

Dezirae Fuentes, a student, said the charter school holds strong values and has a solid educational foundation.

"The students and staff are all very helpful and outgoing," Fuentes said. "The teachers are always willing to put in their own time to make sure you understand and are on the right track."

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or