Almanac

Schools - September 24, 2008

Sequoia high school district denies Everest charter; organizers to petition county

• Report alleges lack of community support, cites potential for racial isolation.

by Dave Boyce

Proponents of a new four-year charter high school proposed to open in Redwood City next September and modeled closely on Summit Preparatory Charter High School, saw initial hopes for a charter dashed last week by trustees of the Sequoia Union High School District.

Citing a lack of community support, potential financial problems, elitism and the possibility of "racial isolation" — that a new Summit-like school would draw white students away from charters in East Palo Alto — the trustees voted 4-1 to reject the petition to establish Everest Public High School.

The vote followed two hours of public testimony from about 50 speakers, both pro and con, at a Sept. 17 board meeting.

Trustee Olivia Martinez opposed the board's decision. "Clearly, (Summit) has got students from every kind of background you can imagine, and that's a good thing," she said. Acknowledging expressed concerns about another charter school, she added: "I think it would be nice if we didn't have this (Everest) petition in front of us (but) it's the will of the people here."

"I don't believe it's the will of the people," board President Lorraine Rumley replied. Charter schools may serve for "certain students who cannot function around a lot of people," she added. "One charter school is fine, but I don't see the need to have a continuum of charter schools."

Trustee Gordon Lewin predicted that the proposed school "would create racial isolation" in East Palo Alto. "White students would basically choose Everest first rather than go to East Palo Alto."

Summit Prep, a six-year-old Redwood City public school, is notable, according to school officials, for its graduates' high rates of admission to four-year colleges, its ethnic diversity, its frugality — Summit spends about $2,000 less per year per student than the district — and its popularity.

Admission has been by lottery, as required when there are more applicants than there is space. For 2007-08, there were 3.25 applicants for each of the 100 freshman seats, school officials say.

The ethnic mix of Summit Prep's 400 students approximates that of the district, with 39 percent from a Hispanic heritage and 48 percent white, 45 percent from families receiving free or reduced-price lunches, and 18 percent from families in which the primary language is not English, the backers say. About a third live in The Almanac's circulation area.

Diane Tavenner, the chief executive officer of Summit Institute, which would govern Everest, said the petition will now go to the San Mateo County Board of Education.

The Sequoia board's rejection was "unfortunate," Ms. Tavenner told The Almanac. "We will go on and we feel very, very confident that it will be approved. It's unfortunate that it won't be local and it won't be collaborative."

If either the county board or state board of education approve the charter, the Sequoia district will be responsible for offering Everest facilities and for annual payments to the school of $7,000 to $8,000 per student.

Speakers at the meeting who opposed the petition focused on the prospect of more money going to charter schools at the expense of programs at comprehensive high schools such as Menlo-Atherton and Woodside.

The district, with a current budget of about $92 million, paid Summit Prep $2.5 million last year. The district also collected about $94,000 in rent from the school for a building at 890 Broadway St. in Redwood City, said Todd Dickson, Summit Prep's executive director.

For every 100 district students who attend a charter, the Sequoia district pays the school about $800,000, but the district also saves about $400,000 in overhead costs for teachers, according to interim assistant superintendent Don Gielow.

Public comment

"There's so much diversity in our school," Summit student Monette Cherise Clemons told the trustees. "It's sad that people can't see this. Diversity is not just the color of the skin. It's what you have in your mind."

Lisa Shupp Mules said she was told at M-A that her son, a special education student, should not consider advanced placement (AP) or honors courses. As a freshman at Summit, he handled an all-AP load with a 3.0 grade point average, she said, adding: "Summit can and did educate special-needs kids and I believe Everest can, too."

"I actually applaud Summit," said Denise Bullwinkle, parent of an M-A grad. "I have good friends whose children have gone there (but) I do not want the fragmentation of our public schools. We have choices now. We don't need any more."

Julie Merk, a petition opponent, after noting the financial "burden" of another charter, concurred. "We may be chartered out," she said.

Context missing

The Sequoia district staff prepared a 17-page report for the trustees that recommended a petition denial. (The report is available at tinyurl.com/EverestPetition. The petitioner's response can be found at www.speverest.org.)

The report begins by noting that at an Aug. 13 public hearing on the petition, some 20 speakers "voiced concerns" about another charter school. The report mentions this testimony three more times, including in its conclusion as justification for denying the petition.

But the report does not note the statement at the meeting of Everest spokeswoman Yvette Sarnowski, who said that, given the board's "first-hand experience with how Summit has thrived," the petitioners decided not to "rally the troops," and that one person would speak for them.

Asked about this discrepancy, district spokeswoman Bettylu Smith acknowledged that Everest's statement was left out. "The report is a reflection of the review of the petition and the comments that were received," she said.

Asked why Ms. Sarnowski's statement would be excluded from a report to elected officials, she replied: "I just don't know how to answer that," then added, "There's just so much that wouldn't be in that report."

Success unlikely?

The staff report asserts that Everest's budget projections show that the petitioners "are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the (Everest) program.

A financial analysis by accountant Michele A. Huntoon of School Services of California, paid for by the Sequoia district, faults the petitioners repeatedly for a lack of data.

In its response, Everest petitioners note that the district neither phoned nor met with them during its review period, that the record of that review consisted largely of five e-mailed questions, and that the district could have used Summit Prep data to address the analyst's complaints.

Ms. Huntoon, in an interview, said her analysis was independent, and said that the district "provided all the information that they had (and) that a petition should be a stand-alone document. ... If it's lacking in any way, then that's going to come out."

"We maintain that it is a stand-alone document," Ms. Tavenner said. "We also have a real-life example of a school that used the exact same budget and the exact same process and that actually worked. For whatever reason, this woman was incapable of properly analyzing it."

Asked about the independence of a School Services analysis, Gary Larson, spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association, replied that the company has two functions: providing budget assistance and representing the interests of school districts.

"They do an analysis that is certainly not an independent one," he said. "It's going to be opinion that the school district wants to hear."

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