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Editorial: The letter of the law

Original post made by Porter, Menlo Park: Downtown, on Feb 23, 2009

This editorial appears in the Feb. 25 issue of The Almanac.

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.

Comments (13)

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Posted by Get Out Of The Way
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 24, 2009 at 12:19 pm

A long time ago my wife and I discussed the notion that the district's parents would eventually begin to demand the better schools that the district was not able to provide. I have not been following this as closely as if I was one of the petitioners but have been watching the Everest proposal for a while. As the overall demographic of the district shifts toward parents with higher expectations while the sagging economy makes private schools a less feasible alternative it looks to me like the inevitable is beginning to happen. The district does not seem to be delivering what its constituents want. In light of that it seems to me that Gemma should either lead, follow, or he will be forced to get out of the way.

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Posted by Mache Creeger
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Feb 24, 2009 at 9:06 pm

I strongly agree with the editorial. With high college acceptance, lower overall costs, and over subscribed applications, it is hard to see anything other than the resentment of sharing budget and power in the condemnation of Summit/Everest model by the Sequoia district board.

While the Summit/Everest model is not for all kids, there is obviously strong demand in the community with twice the applicants for Everest as it has space. The board serves to provide educational services reflecting the needs of the public. At election time, that effectiveness will measured in votes. I for one will not be voting for board members that rejected the Everest application.

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Posted by curious
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Feb 25, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Charter schools seem to have an abysmal record working with students who have learning challenges. This doesn't seem to be discussed whenever Summit/Everest are debated (ref: Web Link ). If Summit/Everest is to be a model for the Sequoia district, what then for students who need extra support to succeed - are they to be written off?

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Posted by Curious too
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 25, 2009 at 9:52 pm

Curious, do you have any references (research, news reports, etc) regarding charter schools and children with learning challenges? I'm not saying you are wrong, but its a big charge to make, and wondered if there is documentation.

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Posted by informed
a resident of another community
on Feb 26, 2009 at 11:12 am

"curious" makes a factually incorrect statement: learning challenges are addressed regularly and successfully at Summit. it is discussed whenever the question is debated eg Web Link

Far from being written off, these students are being educated successfully.

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Posted by Maria Flaherty
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 1, 2009 at 12:16 am

Your article makes it a racist issue. Would you have written that same article if your target delivery market was EPA? I don't think so. Have you gone to EPA and handed out the newspaper or delivered it there? No you serve Menlo Park, Atherton, Portola Valley, Woodside. All predominantly white, well educated, affluent areas. Your editorial is slighting the people of EPA. Your article implied EPA and their community are second class citizens. You imply the only place for a new HS is in a white community. Everest like Summit prep would be a "Publicly financed private school" who skim money from the HS district who serve all the students in our community. I would have no leg to stand on if Summit Prep took students who don't speak English or our students who have learning disabilities but they don't they just take the money that would be better served by the whole community of SUHSD.

If you ask any of the HS students who are currently bussed if they would prefer to go to a HS in their own town or get up early and be bussed they would say they want a HS in there own town. I don't believe that the whole town would not want the one way bussing stopped. If SUHSD must be forced to open another HS then they should do it in the only town that they collect taxes for and serve that has not had a HS since 1976 and stop the one way bussing. San Carlos has a HS, Redwood city has 4, WHS, Sequoia, Redwood and Summit Prep, Menlo Park/Atherton share one and EPA has 0. If you lived in EPA would you be happy that your child has to be on the bus at 6:40 am or earlier to go to HS? How about after they are done with tutoring, after school activities, a sport? They have to wait for the county bus to take them home getting home even later than the students in San Carlos, Redwood City, Menlo Park or Atherton. What is equal about that? Would you want your child waiting in the dark for 40 minutes until the bus came in the morning if they missed the SUHSD bus or that same in the evening after sports or after school programs? No you don't live in EPA and your child does not live in that area so you really should not be writing and opinion for the people of that community.

There is no issue in sharing a day school with a night school. Did you interview Pat Gemma and ask him how sharing would work before you wrote your article? Did you look at the SUHSD catalog of night classes and ask any teacher how sharing worked before your wrote your article? Did you ask any students who attend night school at one of the SUHSD campus? No, I don't think so or you would have found out how it worked and that would have negated your "Sharing issue." From 1998 to 1994 I went to Adult school at night in SUHSD we came in the teachers brought in what they needed for the night classes and when we left the teachers left with there materials.

Don't think I have not volunteered at a Charter HS as my husband and I have volunteered there too. Back in 1999 we went to meetings for BACH when we were trying to figure out what High school would be best for our child and they were having volunteer opportunities for the "New Charter HS" that met on the SUHSD James street campus.

Did you know SUHSD is being forced to lay off 20 teachers and now fund a start up for Everest. EPA deserves a High School and Everest wants to help students get into college it is a perfect fit. It is inappropriate to boast about 95% acceptance into college for Summit Prep when they serve students who don't have learning disabilities or who are not fluent in english the way the other HS in the district do. You get the middle of the road kids or better so there really is not a challenge in educating them, just motivating them to turn in there work and to attend class.

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Posted by David Boyce
Almanac staff writer
on Mar 1, 2009 at 11:06 am

David Boyce is a registered user.

The Sequoia Union High School District in 2007 announced an intention to build a $10 million 4,000-to-5,000-square-foot high school on Myrtle Street in East Palo Alto. The plan, at the time, was to make this site a home for East Palo Alto Academy High School, a charter high school now on Pope Street in Menlo Park and operated by Stanford University.

As for Everest Public High School, if it opens at the Green Street site, Sequoia district Assistant Superintendent James Lianides has described it as "a starter campus" for the school's first two years.

Admission to Everest will be by lottery since there are now about 250 applicants for the 100 freshman seats. About 44 percent of those applicants are from Redwood City, 21 percent from Menlo Park, and 12 percent from East Palo Alto. In the Sequoia district, students from East Palo Alto represent about 19 percent of the whole, a district spokeswoman said.

The branch of the Sequoia district's adult school that would be co-located on Green Street is not the same thing as fee-based evening enrichment classes offered at existing high schools. The adult school's free or low-cost classes are meant for adults working toward goals such as citizenship, a high school diploma, better parenting skills, and proficiency with English.

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Posted by curious
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Mar 3, 2009 at 5:06 pm

There is an article on the ERIC digest - the link didn't make it through in the original post -
Public Charter Schools and Students with Disabilities. ERIC Digest E609.
Web Link.

From the Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting: Web Link
"Another common research area related to charter schools is special education. Many state charter laws make little or no mention of how these schools are expected to serve students with disabilities. Many charter schools choose to discourage students with disabilities from enrolling or do not comply with federal special education statutes because they feel these services are too costly to provide (Jennings et al., 1998; Rhim & McLaughlin, 2000; Zollers & Ramanathan, 1998). Although it is illegal for public schools to discriminate when enrolling students, many charter schools are not prepared to serve students with disabilities."

Jennings, W., Premack, E., Adelmann, A., & Solomon, D. (1998). A comparison of charter school legislation: Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia incorporating legislative changes through October 1998. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Rhim, L. M., & McLaughlin, M. J. (2000). Charter schools and special education: Balancing disparate visions. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education. ED 444 297. Web Link

Zollers, N. J., & Ramanathan, A. K. (1998). For-profit charter schools and students with disabilities. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(4), 297-304. EJ 577 268. Web Link

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Posted by informed
a resident of another community
on Mar 4, 2009 at 10:50 pm

"curious" cites a general survey from 2001: the specific details of performance in recent school years are much more relevant and insightful -- taken from the Everest response to the district assertion linked above

7% of Summit Prep’s students are qualified for special education (the district average is 10%) and have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). An additional, 8% have diagnosed learning disabilities, but are succeeding using mainstream supports and accommodations.

The demographics from that response should also answer some of Maria's thoughtful questions.

it is worth asking why there is any debate on funding proper facilities: was too much money squandered on a $30M+ theater? Web Link bread and circuses, indeed.

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Posted by curious
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Mar 5, 2009 at 7:54 am

I'd be interested in the links to the data noted by Informed. Also, are there new studies of the successes of children with special educational needs available for charter schools? It would be good to know how Summit addresses each of the points brought up by the study.

In checking the California State Dept. of Education Data Quest reports for
Web Link, 19 students out of 358 were classified as disabled in 2006-2007, with just 1 student who took the CAHSEE classified as Special Education. 17 students also dropped out of Summit that year. Unlike what I was able to find for other high schools, I was not able to find the raw data for the testing breakdown for Summit. Also, I was unable to find the breakdown of learning challenges for those 19 Summit students as I was able to find for other public high schools.

BTW, I am really curious, this isn't an academic or political exercise for me as I have a child with special educational needs who will be in high school soon.

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Posted by Maria Flaherty
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 9, 2009 at 1:23 pm

I want to know how many Summit prep are on the free and reduced lunch plan?

IF Summit is so successfull why do they want Everest in Redwood City? Why can't they operate in the only town without a High School? If SUHSD must fund another HS then East Palo Alto deserves a High school.

Redwood city does not need another High School. Woodside, Sequoia, Redwood and Summit Prep are all in Redwood city.

Sequoia is losing 20 teachers without funding for Everest. It is a waste of our taxpayers money to create another charter high school in Redwood City.

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Posted by David Boyce
Almanac staff writer
on Mar 9, 2009 at 1:44 pm

David Boyce is a registered user.

A Sept. 24 Almanac story describes the ethnic mix of Summit Prep's approximately 400 students for the current school year as including 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.

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Posted by Urania
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Mar 9, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Technically, Woodside High School is in unincorporated Woodside, although it's near the border with Redwood City.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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