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OUSD exploring “partnership” model in attempt to keep two schools close to the district

on March 6, 2012

ASCEND elementary school principal Larissa Adam is excited. She’s hopeful her Fruitvale area school and the Oakland Unified School District are about to embark on a new kind of arrangement between a public school system and a charter school that would allow ASCEND to become a “partnership” school—a school that functions like a charter but retains a relationship with the district.

First, though, the OUSD board has to vote to allow the change for ASCEND, as well as Learning Without Limits, another Fruitvale elementary school that also is applying to become a charter school.

Both ASCEND and Learning Without Limits are currently district small public schools that have applied to become charter schools. In January, the OUSD board voted to reject the schools’ charter applications, and decision both schools then appealed to the Alameda County Board of Education, which has yet to make a ruling on either case. Shortly after the denial by the school board, school and district officials began meeting over a compromise measure that would allow the schools to become charter schools but also have stronger ties to the district than other such schools.

As partnership schools, ASCEND and Learning Without Limits would become charter schools run by charter management company Education for Change. They would have most of the same traits as an ordinary charter school—a public school that operates independently from the district, receives both private and public funding, and has the ability to come up with its own curriculum and hiring practices. Oakland currently has 30 such charter schools.

But unlike other district charter schools, ASCEND and Learning Without Limits would buy services from OUSD, from custodial services to research, and be responsible for helping pay off the district’s state debt. Each school in the district helps pay off a total of $6 million worth of debt annually. The schools will also still participate in the district’s enrollment process, meaning they’ll be listed during the options process for students looking to transfer within the district. The schools will continue to receive kids who were expelled from other district schools, and teachers from both district schools and the partnership schools will continue to work together in crafting curriculum and professional development programs.

While the partnership school idea is new to Oakland, there are schools in the Los Angeles area with similar agreements between the district and charter schools, according to Kate Nicol, the regional director of the Alameda County California Charter Schools Association. Some Los Angeles County charter schools “have an agreement with the district that they’re going to access certain services in exchange for facilities and other things the district can offer,” Nicol said.

On March 7, the school board will decide if both schools will be allowed to become charter schools under the partnership model.

“There are benefits for both parties,” Adam said. “Benefits for us, because it has never been our desire to be away from Oakland Unified. We’re very committed to the strategic plan, this whole idea of building a district of full service community schools. … And clear benefits for the district, in that we’d be paying for services, and this benefit of cross-pollination, with traditional district schools and this new model of partnership schools.”

The two schools’ efforts to become charters began last year due to concerns about what Adam called “essential conditions” for the schools: autonomy over staffing, budget, curriculum and scheduling. When ASCEND opened in 2001—at that time Adam was a 4th and 5th grade teacher for the school—ASCEND was one of 25 schools that were a part of OUSD’s first autonomous school policy, which began in 2000. That policy allowed the creation of small schools in overcrowded areas and gave the schools decision-making power over staffing, budget, curriculum and scheduling without input from the district.

“We were able to work as a team of educators and parents to envision the school we wanted to create,” said Adam, who became principal in 2004. “We opened our doors in 2001 with all these great ideas, and all of these autonomies that were helping us to realize our vision.”

But the leadership of the district changed over the years, including being taken over by the state in 2003, and being without a permanent superintendent until Tony Smith was named to the position in 2009. During that time, Adam said, the autonomy the school was founded upon quickly eroded. Because the school board never crafted specific policies about how campus autonomy would work, she said, as soon as the state took over, the school lost those controls.

Adam said that after years of trying to get those controls back, ASCEND school officials began a discussion in the spring of 2011 with parents and teachers about what they felt was important in a school. “Some of the key things that came out of that survey was just people’s desire to have staffing and budget and curricular autonomy,” Adam said.

At that same time, teachers around the district received layoff notices, including 60 percent of the ASCEND staff, Adam said. “That really frightened our community, both teachers and parents,” Adam said. “So much of what we do here is based on relationships, so I think that added a level of urgency that hadn’t quite been as intense before.”

School officials then conducted an informal survey of ASCEND staff, and two-thirds of the school’s 23 teachers said they wanted to explore becoming a charter. The parent leaders were nearly 100 percent in favor, Adam said.

Then, last summer, Hae-Sin Kim Thomas, ASCEND’s first principal, took over as CEO for Education for Change, a charter school management company. Adam said she reached out to Thomas to see if Education for Change would be willing to incorporate ASCEND. Thomas went to the Education for Change board and got approval, according to Adam.

ASCEND, along with Learning Without Limits, then submitted applications to become charters to the district in October, 2011, with two-thirds of the ASCEND staff signing the petition.

But in January, the school board rejected both schools’ applications to become charters, following the recommendation by Superintendent Tony Smith that these schools, two of the top-performing campuses in the district, should be kept in the fold instead of being allowed to become independent. The board voted 5-1 to deny ASCEND’s application, and 4-2 to deny that of Learning Without Limits. At the time, Smith said that the schools leaving the district would “diminish both our fiscal and academic capacity to serve children well.”

Both schools immediately appealed the OUSD board’s rejection of their application to the Alameda County Board of Education. Since the first vote, representatives from both schools have been meeting with OUSD’s general counsel, Jackie Minor, to discuss creating partnership schools instead.

There are still unanswered questions of just how the partnership would work, though, said Betty Olson-Jones, the president of the Oakland Education Association, which represents district teachers. The unions’ biggest concern is about what will happen with the teachers at partnership school campuses. The union’s contract with the district does not cover teachers at charter campuses.

“That’s our issue,” Olson-Jones said. “Are the teachers now at-will employees? Does that mean they have no protection? If they’re in the union, that means they’re under the current contract. If they’re a so-called ‘dependent’ charter, that’s another matter.”

Adam said that ASCEND teachers would no longer be covered by the OEA contract. Instead, she said, Education for Change will incorporate the current teachers into its staff, and the charter management company will negotiate a work agreement with the teachers. Education for Change will be in charge of governing the two new charter schools and staffing them, Adam said. She said she doesn’t anticipate that any current teachers would lose their jobs, or have to re-apply for them, if the new school model is approved. “Our teachers will not have to apply for their jobs because we actually want all of our teachers to join, anybody who wants to, in the ASCEND charter version,” Adam said.

If the OUSD board votes against the partnership meeting on March 7, Adam said ASCEND and Learning Without Limits will continue their appeal to the county, which is scheduled to hear it on March 13. But if the OUSD board approves the agreement, the schools will drop their appeal to the county, she said.

OUSD’s spokesperson Troy Flint said district officials don’t want the schools to leave the district to become charter schools because the schools are two of the strongest in the system. In trying to create a strong, unified school system, “obviously, secession runs counter to that goal,” he said.

Still, Flint said, after denying the initial application, OUSD officials want to work on a compromise. “We decided it was best, instead of taking an adversarial approach, to acknowledge they have some legitimate concerns, and to try and alleviate those through a partnership that allows us to work together in the interest of students and also to produce some revenue for the district,” said Flint.

If the charter applications from the two schools are denied by both the district and the county, the schools can appeal to the State of California Board of Education. But right now, Adam said she’s not thinking about that.

“I’m so hopeful about March 7 that we haven’t even focused on that,” Adam said. “I’ve been much more focused on March 7 and what seems like a very real solution that seems really beneficial for all.”

1 Comment

  1. […] had recently negotiated two other partnership agreements with other Fruitvale area elementary schools, Learning Without Limits and ASCEND, which are the […]

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