Maria Zimmerman celebrates the COVA High School charter approval with her children, all COVA students.

Oakland school board approves two new charter schools

on November 6, 2014

The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Board of Education voted to approve two charter school petitions Wednesday night: Castlemont Junior Academy and the Conservatory of Vocal and Instrumental Arts (COVA) High School. Both petitions were approved in separate 5–1 votes, with District 1 Director Jody London casting the only dissenting vote in both; board President David Kakishiba was not present for the vote.

The Castlemont Junior Academy charter approval was met with standing applause and cheers from a crowd of about 40 supporters wearing Castlemont T-shirts. According to the petition, the school will likely be located on Castlemont High School grounds, and is scheduled to open in the fall of 2015. It would serve sixth-graders in its first year, and eventually serve up to 300 students from grades sixth to eighth.

Olis Simmons, one of the lead petitioners for Castlemont Junior Academy and the CEO of Youth Uprising, a neighborhood hub that supports young people in East Oakland, gave an impassioned speech to the board prior to the vote. “We are deeply committed to making sure that our young people thrive,” Simmons said. “Not just graduate, but thrive.”

A COVA High School charter petition was rejected by the board last year due to “deficiencies in their report,” according to board Vice President and District 7 Director James Harris, so its approval Wednesday night was met with supporters hugging and cheering after the motion was passed. COVA currently has a charter K-8 program near Holy Names University that has been successfully running since 2007. According to their petition, COVA High School’s “mission is to provide the extraordinary benefits of music and a high quality academic education to students in grades 9-12 from the greater Oakland Area and local communities.” They expect to serve about 60 9th and 10th grade students beginning in the fall of 2015, and eventually serve up to 240 high school students.

“That’s a relief!” said Dr. Sandy Carpenter, president of COVA High School’s board of directors, when the petition was approved. Dr. Valerie Abad, the school’s founder and board director, said that their school had the “second highest API score in Oakland,” referring to California’s Academic Performance Index, a score from 200-1000 that ranks school performance levels. (The school’s API is currently 873). She also said that she hopes to formally connect the new high school with Merritt College, with which COVA already has an existing relationship. Advanced middle school students have the opportunity to take Merritt College courses for college credit through their early-entry program.

“It’s an amazing school,” said Maria Zimmerman, parent to three COVA students. She said she was relieved her children could continue on at the newly approved high school; COVA was “very well-organized;” and has made a “drastic” impact on her children’s education.

Although the two charter approvals were met with resounding approval from many in the audience, there were several who expressed their discontent. Jim Mordecai, a regular at school board meetings, approached the podium several times throughout the evening to express his disapproval, saying that “Oakland is saturated with charter schools” and that the school board is “too charter-friendly.”

Douglas Appel said that charter schools were “re-segregating” Oakland, and that he took exception to the Castlemont petition’s claim that the proposed junior academy would be a feeder into the existing district-run Castlemont High School. He said that this isn’t the case according to the website for Castlemont Community Transformational Schools, the educational body which filed the charter petition, and that the group intends to eventually file a petition for a separate charter senior high school.

“I want to be very clear that the senior high school is the district-run high school,” Simmons later said. “There is no intention to have a (charter) high school.”

Although they voted to approve both charter schools, District 3 Director Jumoke Hinton Hodge and District 7 Director James Harris expressed some reluctance before casting their votes. Harris said that the board had to take on the burden of making “traditionally operated public schools” better.  “I feel that we are reaching a point where our past insufficiencies have caught up with us,” Harris said, prior to casting his vote for the COVA High School petition. “We can no longer say, ‘A charter school must come along and solve our problem.’”

Hinton Hodge, prior to her vote on Castlemont, said that while she was impressed with its proposed programming, she had concerns about the plans and funding for Castlemont Junior Academy’s facilities. The Castlemont petition plans to request facilities from the district through Proposition 39, a law that passed in 2000 which states that public school facilities are to be “shared fairly among public school pupils, including those in charter schools.” David Montes de Oca, who was providing a staff recommendation on behalf of both Castlemont and COVA, said that the facilities were being planned for, and that a more in-depth description about the Proposition 39 process would be provided to the board later this year in an asset management report.

In other matters, Harris thanked Oakland voters for passing Measure N, also known as the Oakland College and Career Readiness for All Act, an additional property tax which is expected to raise $12 to $13 million annually for college and career preparation for high school students. He congratulated Shanthi Gonzalez, Nina Senn and Aimee Eng, who were leading in the polls for the three open school board seats, as well as District 4 Director Anne Campbell Washington, who was elected to the Oakland City Council, saying that she would be missed.

“It has been an absolute honor to serve my school board,” Washington said. “You’re gaining a councilmember and I’m really excited to work closely with all of you.” She also acknowledged the student board members, Carmen Jimenez and Katebah Al-Olef, calling them “rockstars” who “represent the best of Oakland.”

Superintendent Antwan Wilson also expressed appreciation to the voters and supporters of Measure N. “We know that that was a grass-roots, bottom-up effort,” Wilson said. “It took great courage and leadership to say, ‘College, career, community readiness for all.’”

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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