Summit Prep, high school district square off over charter renewal
• A tense relationship shows no sign of easing.
The tension just won't go away between Summit Preparatory Charter High School, which is set to graduate its first class of seniors in June, and the school's new sponsor, the Sequoia Union High School District.
With Sequoia's May 2006 sponsorship of Summit, state law now requires the district to take over from the state and provide Summit with $6,200 per student, or $2.3 million for 375 students.
The district's Board of Trustees denied Summit a five-year charter, granting instead a two-year term to allow for "due diligence" in evaluating the school, said Gordon Lewin, president of the Sequoia board.
That deal included the cancellation of a popular program that reserved seats at the high-performing school in exchange for 30 hours of volunteer work by students' parents.
The district then changed its mind on relocating Summit from its former bank office to Redwood High School after Redwood students and faculty objected. Instead, the district installed Summit in temporary buildings on the tennis courts at Sequoia High School in Redwood City.
Now, just six months into its new charter, Summit has petitioned for a renewal — an automatic five-year charter — the district has said no, and attorneys are getting involved.
In a Dec. 6 letter, Summit attorney Paul C. Minney charged the Sequoia district with violating the education code when superintendent Pat Gemma sent back Summit's Oct. 30 petition. The Board of Trustees should have taken action, Mr. Minney said.
Under the law, a school board must hold a public hearing within 30 days of receiving a charter petition and either grant or deny it within 60 days, with a 30-day extension if both parties agree, he said. The Sequoia board needs to act on this petition before Dec. 30, he said.
In returning Summit's petition, Mr. Gemma, in a letter, asked the school to resubmit it in August 2007. That would allow Sequoia to evaluate Summit for the 2006-07 school year, particularly the academic performance of students with significant learning challenges. Mr. Gemma promised a 45-day turn-around.
But if Sequoia rejects the petition in the fall of 2007, it wouldn't leave enough time to appeal the decision and/or seek a charter from the county or the state, said Summit Executive Director Dianne Tavenner. Summit's current charter expires in May 2008.
The state Department of Education recommends that charter schools with doubts about being renewed obtain a decision from the sponsor before the current charter's last fiscal year begins — July 2007, in this case.
"The entire Summit community would like to have peace of mind about the school's future," she added.
An appeal "probably won't be needed," said board president Lewin. Summit's concern about rejection is "surprisingly negative thinking," he said. "They obviously have a program that's strong."
Summit students have performed well on standardized tests, with cumulative scores in the past two school years of 862 and 851 — above the state's target of 800.
The district is also looking for a permanent home for Summit, Mr. Lewin added. "We're moving ahead, full speed ahead," he said. "We would not be allocating bond money for a permanent site if we were going to shut this school down."
In granting the two-year charter, Sequoia trustees asked that Summit's enrollment reflect the district's demographics.
Summit's high performance has trustees questioning whether the student body represents the district's range of academic abilities, particularly with respect to special-education needs and fluency in the English language.
For the 2005-06 school year, the difference is stark in English fluency: at M-A and Woodside, about 19 percent of students are not fluent versus 1 percent at Summit.
About 52 percent of Summit students are white compared to about 41 percent at M-A and Woodside, according to state data.
Demographics are a non-issue, said Mr. Minney, Summit's attorney. The renewal petition "does not say, nor does the law require, that we have to serve the same percentage of the students that exist in the district."
A sore point
In its petition, Summit retains the legacy families program that reserves seats at Summit in exchange for 30 hours of volunteer work by students' parents.
The program was allowed by Summit's first sponsor, the Summerville Union High School District in Tuolumne County, but cancelled by Sequoia trustees because of its perceived unfairness, Mr. Gemma said.
Some 70 percent of the legacy families live in Atherton, Menlo Park, Portola Valley and Woodside, and more than 100 of the 200 new seats available in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years had been set aside for legacy family students, he said.
Asked to comment, Ms. Tavenner noted that about 30 percent of eligible legacy children typically attended Summit.
The program's cancellation is highly irritating to participating families, according to two parents who did not want their names used.
Charter school law requires a lottery for admission if a school is oversubscribed, and Summit is popular: for the 2005-06 school year, there were 300 applicants for 100 seats.
Mr. Minney said in his letter the legacy program should be reinstated because programs like it have "been recognized at local, state and federal levels as a legal preference in charter school admission."
Asked if Summit intends to sue the district over the legacy families program, Ms. Tavenner said there were no such plans.