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School board considers renewal of three charter schools

on November 22, 2019

At a special meeting on Wednesday night, Oakland school board members voted to deny one charter school a petition for renewal and failed to approve renewals for two others, planning to consider both again at the December 2 meeting. 

Board members discussed whether to allow three charter schools to continue operating within the district: Oakland School for the Arts, which serves grades 6 to 12; Lighthouse Community Charter High School, which serves grades 9 to 12; and Roses in Concrete, which serves kindergarten to 8th grade. Staff from all three requested charter renewals through June, 2025. 

Staff members from the district’s Office of Charter Schools presented reports on each school, assessing whether it met standards for academic achievement, whether it appeared able to actually deliver its programs, and whether its administration’s plan for a future charter were “reasonably comprehensive.” To determine whether schools met the benchmarks, staff compared each campus to others with similar numbers of economically-disadvantaged students, English learners and students with disabilities, as well as to district averages.

The meeting began with the assessment of the petition for Roses in Concrete, and about half the audience members at the meeting were wearing red and black sweatshirts with the school’s logo. Around 20 supporters spoke during public comment, lauding the school’s culturally-specific and multilingual curriculum, which focuses on ethnic studies and the histories of the Latino and Black community. Many also praised the demographics of the staff for mirroring the student body: 40 percent of the students are Black, and 33 percent are Hispanic or Latino. Fifteen percent of the students are English learners. 

Amy Argnal said she chose to enroll her first-grade son at Roses in Concrete because of its language immersion program. “Roses looks and feels like the Oakland I live in,” she said, speaking before the board during public comment.

But district staff recommended board members deny the charter renewal. According to staff, the school’s academic performance was stagnant and fell below district averages and comparable schools, and school staff appeared unable to deliver on its proposed programs.

“All key student groups have been performing below the OUSD average, and we found little evidence of students being exposed to rigorous tasks in class,” said Sonali Murarka, director of the charter schools office.  

For the 2018-19 school year, only 12 percent of Roses in Concrete students demonstrated proficiency in English on state tests and only 2 percent demonstrated proficiency in math. Enrollment has also declined by more than 100 students in the previous year.  

Some parents pushed back against these ways of measuring the school’s success. Kearne Prendergast, whose daughter attends Roses in Concrete, said the metrics the staff presented needed context. He’s a member of the school’s parent board, which works to guide the school’s administrators.

“I’m not so sure there’s enough appreciation of how daunting the scope of our work is,” Prendergast said. “This is a fundamental change in the way we do school—this is all new ground we’re breaking. So it’s natural to expect a learning curve.”

Board Director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge (District 3) requested that a vote be postponed to allow school representatives to present compelling alternative metrics that could prove success. She said the existing metrics were a “huge disappointment,” but that the board members should be open to giving the school a chance to prove that its alternative methods can produce better results. She said the “school is flipping the paradigm, and it makes sense that it’s a little uncomfortable.”

“This is not a district that has frameworks, or staff, really, that can actually interrupt white supremacy,” Hinton-Hodge said. “We struggle with even using the words.”

Directors Gary Yee (District 4) and James Harris (District 7) were reluctant to give the charter school a pass, saying board members voted to close Roots International Academy earlier this year for the same reasons.

Ultimately, the board members voted 4 to 1 to deny the school’s charter, with Hinton-Hodge abstaining. The gym was silent for a few moments before people began to quietly exit. A few began shouting and chanting “Shame on you!” and threatening to vote board members out of office.

After a brief recess, board members next considered Lighthouse Charter School’s petition. Staffers recommended the board approve the charter, saying the school’s students outperformed those at comparable schools in English and math, and boasted consistently high graduation and performance rates among Latino and economically-disadvantaged students.

They noted, however, that math and English scores—while above district averages—began lagging in recent years. English learners were also less likely to graduate than the average student in the district, they said.

Board members expressed concern about the school’s demographics. The student body is 82 percent Latino; only 11 percent of the students are Black and only 2 percent are Asian. Director Shanthi Gonzales (District 6) said she would not support the charter renewal because of the low number of Black students at the school, which she said the school’s administrators had promised to address in the past.

Shannon Wheatley, chief academic officer at Lighthouse, said the school has begun zip code-specific outreach, with the intention of boosting the number of Black students at the school. He added that the school has already invested funds into its Black Student Union.

The majority of the high school’s students enter from the Lighthouse K-8 school, which has a separate charter that will be up for renewal next year. Board members encouraged the school’s leaders to consider changing enrollment practices at the lower level in order to affect enrollment trends at the high school level.

Ultimately, the board members voted 3-2 to approve the charter. (Hinton Hodge was absent for the vote.) But because the board did not reach a four-vote consensus, which was required for approval, Acting President Jody London (District 1) said she would bring the matter to a vote again at the end of the December 2 meeting.

The meeting ended with discussion about the Oakland School for the Arts, which has been criticized by board members in the past for requiring students to audition in order to enroll. Staff from the charter school office recommended board members approve the new charter, on the condition that the school would begin phasing out its audition process beginning next year.

Officials agreed to join the common charter school application—which allows students to apply to any charter school within the district—after its audition process was officially eliminated. The agreement will be finalized in a memorandum of understanding, which board members will vote on—along with the petition to extend the charter—at the December 2 meeting.

“December 2 will be a long night,” London said before adjourning the meeting. “Hope everyone rests up over the holiday.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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