Last week, the Contra Costa County Board of Education voted 4-1 to approve Summit Public Schools’ proposed charter. The decision has ignited both concern and jubilation among the surrounding community.
Critics of the new Summit school fear it will not serve the neediest children in the Richmond area.
“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,” Local School Board President, Madeline Kronenberg said. “Those children are leaders in the school and when those families leave, the challenges faced by the remaining students will greatly increase.”
The West Contra Costa Unified School District Board of Education denied Summit’s charter earlier this year. Summit appealed the decision to the county board of education.
Kelly Garcia, a Stanford and Harvard graduate, is going to run the new school. Garcia was a history teacher at the inaugural Summit school, Summit Prep in Redwood City, eleven years ago. In Richmond, she has tried to address concerns regarding recruitment and diversity at the school.
“I understand the fear,” Garcia said. “Everything I have done in the past few months is exactly what we laid out in our charter, targeting the neediest areas in the community. At the county hearing last week, current applications almost exactly match the demographics of the district, seventy-five percent African American and Latino students.”
The Summit school will occupy the former Windrush school site at 1800 Elm Street in El Cerrito. The new school, to be named K2, will open at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. K2 will be a free, open-enrollment school, and an option for all students throughout the district. K2 will start as a middle school, serving only seventh grade in its first year and eventually expanding to 7th-12th grades.
Since it was the County board that eventually approved the charter, the school will fall under its jurisdiction, and will not be affiliated with the local school district. The local board has expressed serious concern about the impact the new school will have on existing schools, most notably Kennedy High.
But when voting on the charter, due to California state law, the County school board was unable to consider the impact the new charter may have on existing schools. They also took into account the fact that the staff of the West Contra Costa Unified School District, as well as the county staff, recommended approving the charter.
Contra Costa County Board of Education President, Richard Asadoorian, said, “Whether it draws students or not, we cannot look at that, we can only look at how a charter is written and if it follows the law.”
Contra Costa County Board Member, Cynthia Ruehlig said, “No argument or proof was provided to show that the charter application of Summit contained unsound educational practice. I voted to approve the Summit charter school application as it has the right to exist under California state law.”
The only county board member to vote against the charter was Pamela Mirabella. “I am quite concerned about the lottery system and does it guarantee racial and ethnic balance,” Mirabella said. Mirabella is concerned that if there are more applications than openings, a lottery system will not maintain the stated demographic spread.
“We haven’t approved every charter that’s come down at us,” Asadoorian said. “We’ve looked at maybe a dozen and approved four. We will be the overseeing body, there are governors in there and if god forbid things start to fall apart, we could pull the rug out.”
But given Summit’s reputation, that’s unlikely. Garcia talks about the outstanding teaching staff at Summit schools, ninety-five percent have master’s degrees in education from top graduate programs across the country. She said that Summit partners with the Stanford School of Education and has access to the most recent data and research relating to getting students ready for college. And charter schools are more nimble, able to make quick changes in curriculum in response to student needs, Garcia said.
“We don’t think we are a new solution, or that we are trying to get rid of district schools,” Garcia said. “We are just one more free public option for families.”
A lot of parents are excited about that option. Michael Ray, 51, has an eleven year old in the district. Ray is part of a parent organization called All Our Kids, a collection of local families who collected more than 250 letters in support of the new school.
“There isn’t fault that needs to be assigned, but what we have is the worst district in California,” Ray said. “Everyone can agree it’s better to have more children ready for college than less. We are talking about positive steps towards graduating kids of every socio-economic background, they all have equal shot at Summit.”
The situation is complex. Is the opportunity of a strong education for some in the immediate more important than a strong district for all in the future?
Councilmember Mirabella said, “At what point… how many charter schools will be good for the district and county? How much oversight can the county office have before we have to hire someone to come in and look at all the data?”