Parents, teachers challenging new proposed charter school in Oakland

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Nearly 2,000 people have signed a petition trying to prevent a new charter school from coming to the Oakland Unified School District, arguing that this future campus will not serve African Americans and will be yet another drain on the cash-strapped district.

Oakland Unified already has 35 charter schools, each of which carry individual overhead costs, such as principals, administrative assistance and custodians. The proposal for "Latitude 37.8 High School" run by Education for Change comes just months after the OUSD board decided to slash $9 million from the schools and the central office in order to stay fiscally solvent after years of excessive administrator spending and lack of internal controls. 

The petitioners say another charter school in Oakland is costly and unnecessary.

“They are duplicating what we already have,” said Jasmene Miranda, the Media Academy director at Fremont High School, and the lead organizer against the new charter.  “And we think that’s a major problem.”

But these charter school critics are not seeing the bigger picture, argued Aaron Townsend, project manager for Latitude High's school launch. "The argument is not charter schools vs. district schools," said Townsend, who used to be a teacher and principal for OUSD. "The conversation should be, 'How do we serve students well and get better outcomes for kids?' Part of the frustration is that there is not much self-reflection on their own level of performance."

Parents, Townsend said, don't care whether their children go to charter schools or traditional schools. "They care whether they are going to good schools," he said, "and OUSD is not providing that."

Sixty percent of Oakland district schools graduates leave OUSD without the credits necessary to apply to a California State University or University of California university, and the number drops to 39 percent when it comes to African American students, Townsend argued. Charter school advocates say they can improve the numbers. There are competing studies that prove both points: Charter school students fare better academically, and other studies show that they don't. 

The Oakland school board already denied the charter school citing a variety of reasons. But Education for Change appealed that decision to the Alameda County Board of Education. Trustees are meeting on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. to weigh the appeal. The trustees are not allowed to comment before the meeting as they are acting as de facto judges.

Under California law designed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who is a charter school advocate, schools may appeal to the county to find a favorable ruling. The higher body would have to find extraordinary reasons to deny a charter school

The proposed Latitude High School school would share the campus of Epic Middle School in Fruitvale, one of the six charters that Education for Change already runs. Latitude High would serve 50 students in its first year, according to application documents, and offer a curriculum that treats the "city like a classroom," taking students to City Hall, the Port of Oakland and the Oakland Museum, as examples.

But Miranda said that having this charter school will inevitably draw students and resources away from Fremont High, which has the highest homeless rate in the district and runs four special education program. During OUSD's assessment, however, officials found that the effect of this new charter would have a "low impact" on the district's overall enrollment, according to district spokesman John Sasaki.

As all charter schools do, Latitude High will have an application process to get in, and Miranda feared that they will not accept many African Americans or special ed students. In the past, she said, special ed students have been turned away because charters have said they don't have the resources to help. 

“We have students whose parents are not present for whatever reason,” she said. “And to apply to these schools you have to have a parent present every step of the way.”

She added: “Education for Change has done a really poor job of recruiting African-American students.”

Townsend countered that while there will be an application process, any student who applies will get in. As for not having many African Americans, he said that the Education for Change schools are set mostly in the Latino neighborhoods of Fruitvale, which is why the number of African-American students don't reflect the demographics of the city.

On its website, Education for Change describes itself as “charter management organization” that manages a “diverse portfolio of schools. The group already runs: Achieve Academy, ASCEND,  Cox Academy, Epic Charter School, Lazear Charter Academy and Learning Without Limits. The schools are located in poor neighborhoods, including Fruitvale and East Oakland.

The group’s mission is to “provide a superior public education to Oakland’s most underserved children.” Education for Change was “born through a strategic partnership between the Oakland Unified School District and the education reform community."