Editorial: The letter of the law
Original post made by Porter, Menlo Park: Downtown, on Feb 23, 2009
It is difficult to imagine a more bitter rivalry in local secondary education than the feud between the Sequoia Union High School District and the founders of Summit Prep, the popular and successful Redwood City charter high school, who are petitioning to open Everest Public High School, a sister charter startup, in September.
Woodside vs. M-A seems tame when compared to the unbridled animosity displayed by Sequoia's Superintendent Pat Gemma when he talks about the petitioners and their application for Everest.
Despite Summit Prep's wide popularity with students and parents and its stellar record of students' acceptance into four-year colleges, Mr. Gemma has a far different take. He claims that another Summit-like school has scant public support, would cherry-pick top students from the district, sidestep its obligation to special-education students, and solve problems he claims the district does not have. Everest, therefore, does not deserve a helping hand in getting off the ground, in his view.
How else to interpret the district's late January decision to follow the letter of the law, and offer facilities to Everest in the form of four portable classrooms and some office space in East Palo Alto. The kicker: the school would only have use of the spaces until 5 p.m. each day, when an evening adult school would take over. And the school is hardly being welcomed by neighbors, some of whom seem extremely upset and claim to have been blindsided by plans for a new school on an already busy street, although a minister at a church next door said he would welcome the school.
Sequoia's animosity bloomed in September when the school board voted to deny a charter to Everest, then successfully advocated for a similar rejection before the county Board of Education. The two public agencies then followed the petitioners to Sacramento, where they contested a highly favorable assessment of Everest by the state Advisory Commission on Charter Schools. The 9-0 favorable vote, plus a positive report from the commission's staff, virtually assures that Everest will win its charter when the state Board of Education makes its decision next month.
At the time, Mr. Gemma and the Sequoia board had just released Sequoia's offer of the shared East Palo Alto site to Everest. The charter school has until April 1 to respond. The offer has drawbacks and the district has not explained why it considers this site the best available.
Everest spokesperson Diane Tavenner sees plenty of problems, including details about how space would be shared with the adult school if students stayed, as expected, until 5 p.m. or later. And it will presumably be a significant hardship for teachers and students to clear out all their materials every day so adult students can use the classrooms.
As far as we know, no other school in the Sequoia district must share classrooms with an adult school. Under state guidelines, charter schools must be given facilities that are "reasonably equivalent" to what is typical in a school district, Ms. Tavenner said. "Four classrooms, one with a sink, does not make a comparable facility with what other students are in. …We're concerned that it's not an appropriate offer," she told The Almanac. We agree.
Summit-type charter schools do not deserve such second-class treatment. They succeed by fostering deep involvement between teachers, students and parents. The success rate shows that few students are left behind and that few, if any, are allowed to earn a failing grade. And the results are astounding, with Summit achieving a 95 percent acceptance rate at four-year colleges for a student body that reflects the diversity of the school district. And word has spread, with 237 applications in already for the 100 seats at Everest this fall.
It is time for Mr. Gemma and the Sequoia district to back off from their mean-spirited campaign to hinder the Everest charter effort. Summit went on to great success, and there is every reason to believe Everest will do the same when it is approved.
The Sequoia district board should take the advice of longtime member Olivia Martinez, who was the lone vote against denying the Everest petition in September of last year. She said the petition represents "the will of the people." We hope her fellow board members will agree with her and get behind Everest and the community support that it clearly has.