By Theresa Harrington and Doug Oakley Staff writers | - Inside Bay Area News | http://bayareane.ws/1IybyDQ
Stephanie Castro, 8, middle, joins her fellow students in phonics exercises during class at Achieve Academy in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, July 17, 2015. Two Education for Change Public Schools charters and two traditional Oakland district schools are participating in a K-2 pilot literacy program called "Springboard" that provides incentives for children to read and trains parents to read to their children. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group) ( Laura A. Oda )
07/25/2015 01:24:25 PM PDT :: The spread of charter schools throughout the East Bay and California is often viewed as a blessing or curse, depending on whom you ask.
In West Contra Costa County, where charters are still fairly new, some school district officials consider them unwelcome invaders that drain students and funding. But in Oakland, which has a long history of charters and a few highly successful schools that are considered models of the movement, district officials and charter school operators are finally settling into a more collaborative and symbiotic relationship.
As parents dissatisfied with schools in both districts flock to charters, the debate continues: What is their impact on public education, and can traditional educational models amicably coexist with an alternative movement that shows no signs of abating?
Teacher Holly San Miguel works with students in small group guided reading at Achieve Academy in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, July 17, 2015. Two Education for Change Public Schools charters and two traditional Oakland district schools are participating in a K-2 pilot literacy program called "Springboard" that provides incentives for children to read and trains parents to read to their children. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group) ( Laura A. Oda ) >>
California's charter law, created in 1992, gives more flexibility to charter schools than to traditional public schools, creating a two-tiered system of education that has at times led to animosity and division. It doesn't help that new charters must seek approval from the very districts that stand to lose students, along with the state money those students bring in.
"I think it would be good if we could get a shared sense of direction about what might be the right complement of charters to district schools," said Todd Groves, president of the West Contra Costa school board. "Under present law, people are free to float as many charters as they want, without really taking into account the impact on the district system, which at this point is serving higher-needs students in disproportionate representation."
Oakland has seen its charter enrollment grow from about 8.1 percent of the district's total student population a decade ago to more than 23 percent this year. West Contra Costa lags behind -- 10 years ago the district had two charters serving 1.3 percent of the district's students -- but is picking up the pace.
While district enrollment in traditional West County schools has been on a slow but steady decline, enrollment in charters has jumped. In the most recent academic year, eight charter schools educated 8.6 percent of students, and that number is predicted to reach 14.7 percent of total district enrollment -- 4,485 students -- in 2016-17.
<< Kimberly Cardenas, 7, left, and Karolina Castillo, 8, work together on a worksheet during guided reading at Achieve Academy in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, July 17, 2015. In Oakland, where the charter movement has a long history, district and charter officials are starting to work more collaboratively. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group) ( Laura A. Oda )
As Oakland has shown, that number will likely grow as more parents seek alternatives to the district's low-performing schools. Although a few charters have failed to measure up, both districts are bracing for more of the schools to open in the coming school year, and others with long waiting lists are planning to expand.
The trend is leading some district officials to fret about the long-term effects on their traditional public schools, including loss of students and state funding, and competition for high-quality teachers. It's also prompted some residents to ask the school board to consider closing or merging half-filled district campuses.
Kelly Garcia, executive director of Summit Charter in El Cerrito, which opened last year, said the school's 117 seventh-graders came from 28 elementary schools and reflect district demographics.
In Oakland, charters serve a smaller percentage of African-American and white students than district schools and a much higher percentage of Latino students, according to an analysis by this newspaper. In 2014-15, 53 percent of charter students in Oakland were Latino, compared with about 44 percent districtwide.
That reflects the growing push by Latino families to improve their children's education without turning to pricey private schools, said Noel Gallo, a school board member representing the Fruitvale district for two decades before being elected to the City Council three years ago.
"The ultimate goal for me is: 'Who can provide the best education for our children?' " he said. "Certainly, Oakland Unified as a district has done a below-basic job, if you look at the graduation rates. And that's why parents have chosen to take their children to charter schools."
From the beginning, Gallo said, the board and district administration focused more on the flow of district money going to charters as students left, rather than addressing lackluster academic quality that led parents to seek alternatives.
Often, friction erupts as soon as districts learn a new charter petition is in the works. If district school boards deny the petitions, charters can appeal to their county boards of education and then to the state Board of Education. Three of West County's eight operating charters were approved by the county, compared with six of 38 schools open for business in Oakland.
In Contra Costa, Summit's charter petition was approved by the county board over the objections of some community members who alleged that the schools skim "cream" from the top by taking high-achieving students.
Garcia, however, said only 20 out of 125 students who applied to Summit's El Cerrito campus last year performed at grade level before the school year began.
"We span the spectrum, from kids reading at first-grade level through high school," Garcia said. "I would say if we're 'creaming,' then I am terrified about what's going on at other (district) middle schools."
Parent Michael Ray Wisely, whose daughter attends Summit, said he became disillusioned with a district school board that was more focused on building flashy new facilities than on academics. Summit, he said, holds students and staff to higher academic standards and fosters a college-going culture.
"I felt public charters will force (district) public schools to get better just because charter schools will show them what success looks like," Wisely said.
Many people have misconceptions about charters, said Carol Lloyd, executive director of the GreatSchools national online rankings database. Some are high-performing, some are low-performing, some are run by large management organizations, and some are very small. There are schools that focus on STEM or performing arts, or have alternative instructional philosophies such as Waldorf and Montessori schools.
"The reality is that charter schools are more diverse as a group than (traditional) public schools, so you will find everything under the sun -- even a student who basically stays at home and works on a computer," Lloyd said.
The California Charter Schools Association recommends closing charters that don't meet expectations for student achievement and other standards.
One such school in West Contra Costa closed after test scores fell. But others are bucking the trend. Making Waves Academy, a charter middle school that opened in 2008, saw its Academic Performance Index score rise from 702 that first year, on a scale of 200 to 1,000, to 822 in 2013, far above the district's score of 717.
A study released in March by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, found that most urban charter students in the Bay Area outperformed traditional district students in both English and math.
Oakland's American Indian Public Charter Middle School is a good example. The school scored 971 on the API in 2013, far exceeding California's proficiency target of 800. The average API score for district schools in 2013 was 742, compared with 809 for charter schools.
Oakland's charter movement can be traced to 2003, when the state took over the financially troubled district and concerned parents clamored for more choices for their children, according to Gary Yee, a self-described charter skeptic and a former school board member who was interim superintendent before Antwan Wilson took over as superintendent.
The distrust and acrimony that characterized charters' explosive growth has subsided somewhat with the June 2014 arrival of Wilson, who emphasized collaboration, not friction.
As a result, the district is working with charters "to exchange information and expertise and systems and to collaborate with them so we develop the best knowledge base and the best operation to support all our students," said spokesman Troy Flint.
As further proof, the Measure N parcel tax approved by Oakland voters last November will be split with charter schools on a per-pupil basis for students in grades 9 through 12, Flint said in an email. Approximately $2.8 million a year will go to charters, he said.
In contrast, the West Contra Costa school district has refused to share its parcel tax proceeds with charter schools, prompting a lawsuit from the California Charter Schools Association.
Although West Contra Costa school officials continue to say charters are hurting the district financially, Flint said the Oakland district doesn't really know how to calculate the impact on its budget.
"There is some financial impact, but really, the obligation of the local school district is to provide the highest-quality education for all students -- all public school students -- and not to let ideology interfere with our goal," he said.
"It's to our benefit to spend less time parsing the financial impacts of charter schools and as much time as possible making all the educational options available to kids better. That's a better use of our time."
●●smf's 2¢: When Great Schools.org and The CCSA are the primary sources, it’s safe to assume you are reading a “puff piece”.
What Is a charter school? Charters are free public schools that receive state funding, but are operated independently. In California, most charter schools are nonprofits and are not legally considered to be public agencies.
SOURCE: California Charter Schools Association
More information about charter schools in California is available by calling the California Charter Schools Association at 916-448-0995 or by visiting www.calcharters.org.
To see online rankings and reviews of local schools, including charters, visit greatschools.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
DISTRICT CHARTERS ENROLLMENT DIST. ENROLLMENT PERCENT DIST. ENROLLMENT
Oakland 38 12,084 52,008 23.2
West Contra Costa 8 2,630 30,596 8.6
SOURCE: California Department of Education