September 19, 2008

Sequoia School District Rejects Everest Charter Petition

By Shaun Bishop

Citing concerns about diversity and exclusivity, the Sequoia Union High School District's board has denied a petition for a new charter school modeled after an existing school that is sponsored by the district.

The board rejected the petition for Everest Charter School by a 4- 1 vote Wednesday night after hearing from dozens of parents, students and staff on all sides of the issue.

District staff had recommended the board deny the petition in a report that criticized Summit Preparatory Charter High School, which serves as the model for Everest and has been chartered by the district since 2006.

Trustee Olivia Martinez was the sole dissenting vote, saying she believed "we have something really special in Summit."

"If a parent chooses that path for their child, who are we to second guess them and judge them?" she said.

Other trustees pointed to concerns in the report that Summit serves an elite, select group of students and that Everest would cause a racial imbalance among the district's schools.

The district's report said Summit "falls critically short of reflecting the diversity" in the district's other schools. It said special education students and English language learners made up less than 5 percent of Summit's students in 2007-08, compared with district averages of 11 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

Dianne Tavenner, executive director of the Summit Institute, disputed the district's data, saying Summit's percentages closely match the district's. She said the report is "based on unsound and unsupported assumptions."

Trustee Gordon Lewin also echoed concerns about racial diversity in the report. He said he fears Everest could attract white students from East Palo Alto Academy, racially isolating that Sequoia district charter school and derailing the district's efforts to make all its schools diverse.

"It's really been a long hard slog, and it's not over," Lewin said. "It's my hope we would consider that to be a compelling issue."

Summit's backers proposed opening Everest next fall. They say Summit gets more than three times as many applications as there are spots and believe there's more demand for a small-school environment and an intense focus on college preparation.

A parade of current and former Summit students spoke at Wednesday's meeting and gave the school glowing recommendations.

"I never thought I could go to college when I was a freshman," Abraham Valdivias, a senior at Summit, told the district board. Now, "(I'm) not perfect, but still maintaining my courage to pursue my goals."

Everest's opponents said the district can't afford to pay for another charter school, though that can't be used as a reason to deny a charter petition under charter school law.

Anne Frost, an English teacher at Carlmont High School, said the district's four comprehensive high schools offer the same opportunities that Everest would.

"How many schools do we want to open that aren't open to everybody? Because I don't believe Summit is open to everbody," added trustee Don Gibson. But Martinez shot back: "You can't establish a school for 400 kids and have everyone attend it."

Superintendent Pat Gemma said his staff also had concerns about the viability of Everest's budget, though Martinez said the board could have put in extra conditions to ensure its financial stability.

Tavenner said she wasn't surprised at the board's vote, as the district indicated it "had no intention of ever approving this," but said the group plans to appeal the decision to the San Mateo County Board of Education. She praised Martinez's support of the petition.

"I'm thrilled someone on that board is actually fair and objective and understands the law," she said.

Shaun Bishop can be reached at [email protected]

Originally published by Shaun Bishop, San Mateo County Times.

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