Awaiting a charter appeal, AIMS community finishes school year, uncertain of the future
on May 8, 2013
The American Indian Model Schools (AIMS) community is counting down until the last day of school, June 30, which could be the last day of classes for the controversial three-school charter organization.
In March, the Oakland Unified School District revoked the charters of all the AIMS institutions: American Indian Public Charter School, American Indian Public Charter School II and American Indian Public High School. The vote to revoke the charters followed a series of notices given to AIMS administrators alleging improper business contracts with AIMS founder Ben Chavis’ businesses, inappropriate credit card usage and lack of school board meeting documentation. AIMS administrators submitted their response to the allegations in September, but it was not enough to sway OUSD officials, who voted 4-3 to revoke the charters. If the schools close, the approximately 1,000 AIMS students will need to transfer to new campuses in the fall.
In late April, the AIMS school board submitted an appeal to the Alameda County Office of Education, which could make its decision as soon as May 14. But some of the schools’ teachers and parents say that the chances of the schools remaining open are slim. “Everyone’s going through the motions,” said an AIMS teacher, who didn’t want to give his name. “Normally, at the end of the school year, kids check out. Here, everyone has checked out.”
In the past month, the unity of the AIMS community, which was apparent when parents and teachers were pleading with OUSD to keep the schools open, has unraveled into many different and confused factions, according to some teachers and parents. There are teachers who want the schools to stay open, teachers who say they know that they won’t, parents who want to send e-mails to the county appealing to keep the schools open, parents who already have back-up plans for next year, and parents who don’t know what’s going on. While the schools’ new director is encouraging parents to lobby the county in support of the appeal, some parents have already chosen to move their kids to other schools.
Karyn Woodsum, the mother of a seventh grade student at AIPCS, said that she has made sure to have options for her student for next year. “The administration here is acting as though we’re going to stay open, but I hope everyone knows they should at least get ready for adjustments for next year,” said Woodsum. “If my daughter was a junior about to apply to college, I’d be throwing things at people. I would be furious.”
OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint said it’s not too late for parents to try to enroll their kids in Oakland public schools or OUSD-run charter schools. Flint said that the district extended the deadline to apply for schools for next school year by about a month to accommodate AIMS families. “We even held a school fair for the families to come see what charter school options are available to them,” he said. “We wanted to dispel rumors that OUSD tried to shut down AIMS so that public schools would have more students and, therefore, more funding.”
Although the official application process for the fall has now closed, Flint said, families can still apply in person through the district’s student assignment office.
Some AIMS parents feel they weren’t given enough time to make the switch. Robin Walker Knox, whose daughter is going into the ninth grade and currently attends AIPCS II, said the process of applying to and enrolling in other Oakland schools wasn’t as easy as it should have been. Knox applied to Oakland Technical High School as soon as she realized AIPCS II might be closing. But she was initially rejected, she said, even though she made the deadline. She said she had to write a strongly-worded letter to the school before her daughter and niece were accepted for the 2013-2014 school year.
In the letter, she said, she explained that her daughter is transitioning from an AIMS school, and she wants her to attend Tech because it has advanced classes, like Mandarin and engineering, that she wants her daughter to continue. “I started this process as soon as I knew AIPCS II was going to close. They should have been quicker at helping us shift,” she said.
Knox’s daughter, Jordan, says she is ready to move to a new campus. “I think the atmosphere of the school allows some teachers to be rude to the kids,” she said of her time at AIPCS II. “A lot of us older kids are not attached to the school, and we want to get out.”
Over the past weeks, some parents and teachers have expressed anger towards the AIMS board and administration, complaining during AIMS board meetings that the board failed to hire a third party service to go through its finances, or to properly distance itself from founder Ben Chavis. In April the board fired a handful of key teachers and staff, including former director Sylvester Hodges, which led to the resignation of board president Toni Cook. At meetings, teachers pointed out that the recent spate of firings would not look good to the county when presenting their appeal. “OUSD accused us of having a high turnover rate in their reasons for revocation,” said teacher Colyn Flynn at the April 15 board meeting. “You have, once again, proven them right.”
In recent weeks, the board has hired a new director, Nabeehah Sabree Shakir, and hired a public relations representative. “The director is supported by parents and staff,” wrote newly-hired public relations representative Susan Varner, in an e-mail. “Her tireless efforts have galvanized renewed optimism among parents and staff.”
Varner also said that the director has been organizing meetings with parents to encourage them to write letters and e-mails emphasizing the academic performance of the schools to the Alameda County Board of Education. She also said some parents met to write letters to all the AIMS families to encourage them to stay involved in the appeal process. The letter encourages parents to come to meetings at AIPCS II this week.
“Do you know, 75 percent of the 1,200 students in AIMS are Chinese American?” asks the letter. “The closing of the school would hurt the Chinese community the most. They will not do this if the majority of the students are white.”
Alameda County Office of Education Superintendent Sheila Jordan said that her office has already received many letters and e-mails from AIMS parents supporting the schools. But she said her view on the schools is clear: they should not remain open. “I have a lot of empathy for the families because it’s not the kids’ fault,” she said. “But it’s incumbent upon us that we require that financial obligations are dealt with transparently. And that’s not going on. In that aspect, the schools have failed every test.”
Alameda County public information officer Kristen Yasukawa said the county might bring the appeal before a public hearing on May 14. The hearing would allow both AIMS and OUSD administrators to make their cases. Alameda County Board of Education members will decide if they want to overturn the district’s decision to revoke the charter, take no action—which would affirm the original decision to revoke the charter—or uphold the district’s decision.
The members have 90 days from April 18, the day AIMS administration filed the appeal, to make their decision. If the county decides to take no action or affirm OUSD’s decision, AIMS administrators can appeal to the state.
But AIMS mother Aster Zeriezghi, whose kids will be attending Oakland Charter High School next year, said that she has lost hope completely. “Even if the schools stayed open, I wouldn’t send my kids there. I don’t trust any of the administration,” she said. “It’s a sad ending to the schools.”
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