The national charter school organization KIPP is seeking to expand its presence in San Mateo County with a new high school that would serve about 650 students when fully enrolled.
KIPP Bay Area Schools, which locally operates two combination elementary and middle schools in East Palo Alto and Redwood City, submitted in June a petition for the new school to the Sequoia Union High School District. Next fall, the first class of local KIPP middle schoolers will start ninth grade. Without a KIPP high school, they will likely attend a traditional high school in the Sequoia district.
"The students and families of those schools have been asking for a continued KIPP option through high school since these schools opened," the charter organization's application reads. "To that end, we are committed to working with students, parents, community members, and the Sequoia Union High School District to create that continuous path for students from kindergarten through college."
The Sequoia board of trustees discussed KIPP's application on Wednesday, Aug. 7, expressing some reservations about the potential threat a charter high school could pose to the health of existing district schools — a concern more districts across the state are voicing as they grapple with the impacts of a booming charter school movement. California has more charter schools and students than any other state, accounting for 10% of the state's K-12 enrollment.
"One of the concerns that as a district we're going to have is to be sure that the attraction of this high school would not be cannibalizing populations of the other small high school options that are out there," said trustee Alan Sarver.
The Sequoia district operates seven high schools, including large comprehensive high schools, charter school East Palo Alto Academy, and a new STEM-focused school, TIDE Academy, opening this month.
"We have already what I think might be quite a good amount of choices available from comprehensive high schools through very small schools," said board President Georgia Jack. "I still struggle a bit with, what makes you so different than the other options that we have available?"
Sarver, Jack and trustee Allen Weiner voted against the last charter high school petition that came before the Sequoia board.
Citing past examples of local charter schools that have closed due to low enrollment, Jack said she's "struggling with the idea of the operational viability" and needs more specific data on enrollment, finances and student performance to make a decision on KIPP's petition.
KIPP leaders said they're committed to partnering with Sequoia, including through a potential high school match program that would help both charter and noncharter eighth-graders choose a local high school or an East Palo Alto-wide school music program.
More than 20 KIPP staff, parents and students spoke in support of the proposed high school on Wednesday, praising the charter school's ability to support minority and low-income students — the majority of them the first in their families to attend college — both academically and socially-emotionally.
Many speakers cited the impact of the "KIPP Through College" program, through which advisers provide close mentorship to graduates as they attend college. (Sarver also called the college-support program "striking" and asked KIPP how it could be made more widely available.)
According to KIPP, students who attend the charter organization's middle and high schools in the Bay Area enroll in college at higher rates than students who attend a KIPP middle school but go on to a non-KIPP high school. In the class of 2017, 92% of students who attended KIPP from sixth through 12th grade matriculated to college while 66% who went to a non-KIPP high school did.
"I believe KIPP provides opportunities to low-income families that help close the gap between privileged and unprivileged students," said David Santos, a KIPP alumni and first-generation student who graduated from Emory University. "Because of KIPP, I was able to go to and through college."
Ruben Abrica, an East Palo Alto city councilman and former school board member, also spoke in support of KIPP's petition. He said he was impressed by KIPP's commitment to exposing students to Advanced Placement (AP) courses and high level of parent involvement.
Across KIPP's Bay Area high schools, 91% of seniors in the class of 2018 took an AP course. Sixty-seven percent passed one or more AP exams during their four years of high school, compared with 31% across the state.
KIPP operates charter high schools in San Francisco, San Jose and San Lorenzo, as well as across the country. It collected signatures from 114 local parents who are interested in sending their children to KIPP Peninsula High School.
A location has not yet been identified for KIPP Peninsula High School but the organization is looking at public and private real estate options in Redwood City and East Palo Alto, said Judy Li, KIPP Bay Area Schools' chief of growth, real estate, advocacy and community engagement. KIPP is also looking at an unidentified high school facility in East Palo Alto, according to the application.
The organization anticipates serving 180 freshmen in the school's first year and adding a grade level each year. By 2024, the tuition-free high school would serve about 648 students.
At full scale, KIPP says, the high school will require a minimum of 33 classrooms, a multipurpose room, gymnasium, cafeteria and sufficient administrative space, among other facilities needs. The high school would start with 10 full-time teachers as well as administrative staff and grow to 30 teachers by its fourth year, according to KIPP.
KIPP's desire to open a new high school coincides with rising tension between charter schools and traditional school districts locally and across the state.
In East Palo Alto, KIPP Valiant Community Prep's request last year for a single, long-term campus was met with some opposition. In April, the Ravenswood City School District board ultimately agreed to provide the school with more space at its current site for this year. Ravenswood's enrollment has sharply declined in recent years, which school leaders attribute in part to the rise of charter schools in the area.
The next month, the Ravenswood board approved a resolution that supports a set of contentious state bills that aim to increase oversight of charter schools in California.
The Sequoia board is set to vote on KIPP's high school petition at its next meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 28. The board is legally required to evaluate whether KIPP's educational, operational and fiscal plans are sound.