September 17, 2008

Redwood City Charter School Petition Criticized

By Shaun Bishop

A proposal for a fourth charter school in the Sequoia Union High School District describes a program focused on "students of privilege" that "largely ignores disenfranchised and low-performing students," according to a report that recommends the petition's denial this week.

The district's sharply critical response to the Everest Charter School petition was made public as the district's board of trustees prepares to vote on the proposal at a meeting today.

A top official with the Summit Institute, the nonprofit aiming to open Everest, dismissed the district's report as rife with inaccuracies.

"The report is filled with just egregious and inflammatory statements and claims that are flat-out contradictory," said Diane Tavenner, the executive director of the institute. "I don't even know how to respond to something when you have professionals that are just literally making up information."

Today's meeting sets up the latest confrontation between the district and the supporters of the popular Summit Preparatory Charter High School, which was first chartered by the Sequoia district in 2006.

Summit officials say the 400-student school in Redwood City gets three times as many applications as it has spots in its freshman class, and proposed Everest as a clone of Summit Prep to meet the demand.

That's part of the problem, according to the district report, which says Summit "falls critically short in reflecting the diversity" of the district's four comprehensive high schools.

Tavenner said the district has not previously voiced the report's many complaints about Summit's students and programs, which she says were "unjustifiably attacked" by the report.

One of the district's central criticisms of Everest's petition, submitted in July, is that the school's proposers fail to describe adequate programs for English-language learners or special education students.

Citing Summit's population as an example, the district says fewer than 5 percent of Summit's students are English language learners and fewer than 5 percent are special education students, compared with district averages of 18 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

Tavenner said Summit does serve those students, and actually has 7 percent special education students.

The district's report also says Everest could cause racial imbalance among the district's schools by attracting white students away from the district's two other charter schools in East Palo Alto.

Tavenner said the assertion is an example of the district making "gross assumptions about things that have no basis in fact."

Summit's supporters have pointed to the school's successes, including high standardized test scores and the fact that 96 percent of its graduates have been admitted to four-year colleges.

While legally officials cannot use finances as a reason to deny the charter, Superintendent Pat Gemma said a new charter school would take money from the district's general fund and away from its four comprehensive high schools.

Gemma said state law requires the district to pay charter schools about $7,600 annually per student, which would "take away from the many to give to the few."

Tavenner argues that the district actually gets more than $9,000 in funding per student, so it actually makes money by paying for kids at charter schools.

Reach Bishop at [email protected]

Originally published by Shaun Bishop, MediaNews.

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