Despite its stellar reputation, Summit Public Schools, a charter management organization based in Silicon Valley, had their petition to open a new high school in El Cerrito denied by the West Contra Costa Unified School District. The Richmond City Council, concerned about the impact the new school might have on Richmond students, later backed up the district’s decision.
The issue ignited a heated debate about educational opportunity in Richmond, and what effects the introduction of a new high school might have on existing schools, most notably Kennedy High. The proposed Summit School would be a free public high school, operating under the West Contra Costa Unified School District, and would be open to all students in the district.
The action by the district and the council brought strong opposition. Ben Steinberg, a parent who has removed his daughter from the district, wrote in a letter to Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, “While well-intentioned to support Kennedy, Councilmember (Jael) Myrick’s resolution does a tremendous disservice to the families and children in this community who want stellar educations to be foundational for good jobs and solid careers afterwards.”
Councilmember Myrick, a Kennedy grad, sponsored a resolution supporting the school board’s decision to deny Summit’s charter at last week’s city council meeting. The council voted 4-3 to stand with the school board.
According to Myrick, the new school could take as many as two hundred students from Kennedy High, not leaving enough students there for a viable school, threatening its funding and possibly putting it back on the closure list.
“Richmond has made a $4.5 million investment in Kennedy, keeping it open in rough times through the recession. It was successful, the district has paid back the debt, Kennedy is off the closure list, and they improved forty-five points in the API ratings this year,” Myrick said.
There are substantial fears that the students who will be drawn to Summit’s new school will be those who are experiencing the most success at Kennedy, leaving their peers who are further behind with one less resource to learn from.
School Board President Madeline Kronenberg said, “The broader picture is that charter schools attract the most engaged parents, who are more likely to have children who are successful in the classroom. Those children are leaders in the school and when those families leave, the challenges faced by the remaining students will greatly increase.”
Councilmember Tom Butt, who voted to support Summit in the city council, said, “I think it’s really important that parents have confidence in the schools that they send their kids to. So having some choices that don’t have cost involved has to be a good thing.”
State and federal laws outline the approval or rejection of a charter school, and Summit has now appealed the decision to the County School Board. If that fails, the officials of Summit will appeal to the State School Board.
“We need more successful education options for our students, and this is a free public school that has a success rate working with disadvantaged youth and getting a large majority to four year colleges,” said Linda Ruiz-Lozito, who has two children in the district.
Scottie Smith, who had two children go through the district and now has a granddaughter in second grade, says that even though Summit has a proven record of success, the district will not tolerate having charters take students from their schools.
“You see this all the time when you look at big urban cities where there are socially disadvantaged students, whose parents are so busy trying to make ends meet that they cannot advocate for their children like more affluent parents,” Smith said, adding, “The students in this district are failing miserably, particularly in Richmond schools, and this has gone on for too long. Parents should have the choice to find a better education for their kids.”
In the past, in similar circumstances, county and state school boards have granted charters, overruling local school boards.
“It’s a matter of inevitability,” said School Board Member Todd Groves, who voted in support of Summit, “I decided that we as a board should try to figure a way to work with them, to make sure that we don’t hurt more kids than we help.”
“The law does not allow us to examine the effect on those surrounding schools, which I think is unfortunate,” he added. “I am worried this could be bad thing for Kennedy.”