Competition between schools, whether charter or traditional public, should never use students as pawns. Unfortunately, eight students who attended Communitas Charter High School last year have greatly suffered by the continuing “war” between competing public entities.
Some background to understand the predicament:
Parents want high quality, results-oriented schools for their children. California has been the nation’s leader in the charter school choice movement for two decades. Oftentimes, Silicon Valley has been at the epicenter.
We can argue the efficacy of the movement, as Diane Ravitch does in her second book on the subject, “The Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and The Danger to America’s Public Schools.” I agree with many of her arguments at a national level. But the fact that 50 percent of San Jose’s public school students score below grade level in math and English/Language Arts is a critical problem that traditional public school systems have not solved. We have no time to get the nation on board with the requisite solutions—that might take a millennium.
The Santa Clara County Board of Education has a reputation for providing a fair and just hearing to the petitions that come before them at the appellate or countywide level. The county Office of Education staff assesses each petition and provides its recommendations to the Board based on state law. The Board members do their own research and determine in a lengthy hearing what to do.
The county Board has approved more charter schools than any of the other 57 boards in the state. There is evidence that the charters approved by our Board are improving student achievement, but the sharing of best practices are not occurring as originally intended by the state charter law.
After a staff recommendation that the Communitas Charter petition met all legal requirements, the county Board unanimously approved it in 2011. It began operation in August 2012.
Forty-seven 9th and 10th grade students attended Communitas at the school’s closure in June 2013. They transferred to different school districts or charter schools for their 10th or 11th grade year. All districts, except for one, found ways to give students partial credit, full transferable (A-G credit), and/or full year credit for all coursework performed at Communitas.
According to Christina Aronen, a parent of one Communitas student, eight students transferring to Campbell Union High School District were not granted any credit for their year at Communitas. Those students were told they would need to complete the entire freshman or sophomore year in an on-line curriculum while doing their current year’s coursework. Many of those parents, when addressing the SCCOE Board on Oct. 2, testified that their children had rich learning experiences in a nurturing climate at Communitas.
The reason given for denying credit by CUHSD was that Communitas, a publicly funded charter high school approved by a public agency, was non-accredited. Communitas was to go through accreditation in 2013-14, therefore it did not conform to district policy for receiving any credits.
It is instructive to know that there are 16 cities in the country that have begun systemic and meaningful collaboration with charters and traditional public schools. Each has been funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, including Los Angeles and Sacramento. Alum Rock and Franklin-McKinley school districts and the charters within their boundaries are on a short list for Gates seed funding.
We have a responsibility to learn from the collaborative work by the 16 cities in the Gates Collaborative Compact work. What happened to students at Communitas in Campbell should never, ever happen again. We can and must do better.
Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.