Constellation Middle School, the oldest charter school in Long Beach is closing soon due to lack of funding. It is located on the property of St. Anthony's High School. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)
Re4/06/2012 08:52:35 PM PDT :: LONG BEACH - Constellation Middle School was founded by two local teachers in 1992 with the vision of helping middle school-aged children through an often difficult time in their lives.
The small charter school in Central Long Beach was geared toward inner-city students struggling in traditional middle schools.
"Our mission has always been to focus on inner-city kids who would normally slip through the cracks in larger schools," said Daphne Ching- Jackson, executive director of Constellation since 2001.
But now, the legacy is ending. Constellation Middle School, Long Beach's oldest public charter school, will close its doors at the end of this month after running out of funding. Ching-Jackson said Constellation Middle School in Long Beach is closing soon due to lack of funding.
Executive Director Daphne Ching-Jackson speaks about the closing in the school's hallway. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)
"We've been dipping into reserves over the last two years and eventually we just ran dry," she said. "We realized we wouldn't be able to make it through June without an infusion of cash."
The six-member board of directors made the difficult decision late last month after months of concerns over funding, she said. Parents were notified the next day.
The school, which has about 100 students, is working with the Long Beach Unified School District to place Constellation students together in self-contained classes at nearby Franklin Middle School, 540 Cerritos Ave., for the remainder of the school year.
Parents were asked to list first, second and third choices for alternate schools for their children. The Constellation students, who are all currently on spring break, are expected to begin at their respective schools on April 16.
Ching-Jackson said many parents were shocked and frustrated over the fact that Constellation couldn't remain open for at least the remainder of the school year. The school operates on a year-round calendar but will close just before the start of the third trimester.
The library at Constellation Middle School in Long Beach, which will soon close due to lack of funding. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)
The school has five teachers, who will now be looking for work, she added.
Ching-Jackson said the board had concerns over funding at the start of the school year but chose to open with the hopes of boosting enrollment during the year. Many of Constellation's students, she said, come from nearby Franklin and Washington middle schools halfway through the year after their parents pull them out for various reasons.
Despite its efforts, Constellation has seen about a 26 percent drop in enrollment in the past year. In the 2010-2011 year, the school had 143 students. The number dropped to 106 students this year.
Ching-Jackson said she believes the steep decline in enrollment reflects the overall drop in enrollment numbers in the LBUSD and is due, in part, to Constellation's small and somewhat camouflaged location in a rented wing on the St. Anthony High School campus at 620 N. Olive Ave.
"A lot of parents aren't even aware we're here," she said. "And many parents don't know that they have the option of a charter school."
Constellation was established under the Charter Schools Act of 1992 as the first public charter school in Long Beach. The school's charter petition was approved by the Long Beach Unified Board of Education in 1994.
Charter schools are publicly funded, but independently run. They're overseen by school districts but are free from many of the education regulations binding traditional public schools.
Executive Director Daphne Ching-Jackson, left, chats with parent Sharon Garate in the school's courtyard. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)
Charters have grown in popularity in recent years as parents seek alternatives to a traditional education. But in the onslaught of state cuts to public education, many of the smaller charters are now struggling.
Ching-Jackson said the state cut funding by about $500 per student.
The school now operates on a state funding allocation of about $5,000 per student, which isn't enough to keep the school running, she said.
The school would need an additional $300,000 just to remain open until the end of the fiscal year in June, she added.
The closing comes at a time when Constellation was showing academic progress. Last year, the school's Academic Performance Index jumped from 562 to 615. The number is still well below the state target of 800, but it is a 53-point gain from the previous year.
Ching-Jackson said the school tried to obtain loans and even held a carnival fundraiser in February, but in end, the board was forced to make the tough decision.
"We've been around a long time, and it's a huge loss to our community," she said. "Parents love this school because of its caring teachers and nurturing environment. It's been very sad, but (LBUSD Superintendent) Chris Steinhauser came up with the excellent idea of keeping our students together on the Franklin campus for the reminder of the school year, which I think will help tremendously with their transition."
Constellation isn't the only Long Beach charter school facing financial problems this year.
In February, the board of directors for New City Public Schools, a K-12 charter school system of more than 500 students with campuses on Long Beach Boulevard and Pine Avenue, voted to close its small high school called Colegio New City at the end of this school year due to low enrollment and lack of state funding.
Founded four years ago, the high school has about 86 students and will celebrate its first graduating class in May. Colegio students have been holding fundraisers with the hopes of raising enough funds to keep the school open.
New City directors said the charter system will remain open as a K-8.
The closing of both Constellation and Colegio has caused double stress for mom Sharon Garate. Her 12-year-old son Jorge is a seventh-grader at Constellation and her 14-year-old son Anthony is a freshman at Colegio. Garate, who serves as a board member for Constellation, said she chose to move her sons to small charter schools in Long Beach in an effort to keep them away from their gang-infested neighborhood in Norwalk.
Before coming to Constellation in the sixth grade, her son was failing in a Norwalk elementary school. Now, Jorge is a high-performing student who dreams of becoming a chef.
"This school gave him so much confidence, and he really benefited from the special attention," she said. "Moving my boys to a charter school was the best thing I ever did for them."
Garate said she is now looking at other options for her boys. Jorge wants to attend Franklin, but Garate said she's concerned her son will be overwhelmed in a school of more than 800 students.
"I'm a little worried, but I'm going to let him make an adult decision and go to Franklin," she said. "But I'll be watching him. I want to make sure he's doing well."