Charter renewal hearing schedule waived; takes place without community participation

Story from Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ — Charges of elitism at Pacific Collegiate School have surfaced again as the college-preparatory school seeks to renew its charter for another five years.

The county Office of Education serves as the chartering agency for the award-winning public school. County trustees heard glowing testimony about Pacific Collegiate at a meeting July 15, when administrators, parents, teachers and students told board members about their experiences there.

The charter renewal hearings would ordinarily fall in October; PCS petitioned the COE to move the hearings to the summer months.  The petition on June 17, was based on “uncertainty” regarding the Swift Street lease; a lease approved by PCS according to the Sentinel on June 7 and ratified by SCCS on June 16.  The waiver to move the hearings was based on false premises. See County Office minutes of June 17.

There were no dissenters until the next day, when several people called to complain they were unaware the issue was on the agenda, county Superintendent Michael Watkins said. So the board plans a second public hearing Aug. 19 and will vote in a special meeting Aug. 29, Watkins said.

There were no dissenters present because members of the public who receive notice of COE meetings did not receive notice of this hearing; nor did the COE post relevant minutes from the April and May meetings which would have alerted interested community members.

Jim Logston of Santa Cruz, a retired schools superintendent, said he has marked his calendar. The school has been promising to increase diversity for years and has yet to do so, he charged.

“The schools are the real melting pot of this country and a wonderful place to have better race relations, and we have this little elitist school,” he said. “It’s like any prep school; if one kid gets in, the siblings get in. I don’t know how county trustees can look at themselves in the mirror.”

Andrew Townsend, who heads the Pacific Collegiate board, dismisses Logston’s charge, saying trustees have taken several steps to increase diversity.

The school recently hired an outreach coordinator to spread the word that Pacific Collegiate is a free public school, Townsend said. Trustees also will start setting aside 10 percent of the openings, at least five spots per year, for students who would be the first from their family to attend college, he said.

Trustees have repeatedly rejected steps to increase diversity; dismissing many of the recommendations of their own task force.  Past members of the PCS board and current faculty have petitioned the board to take action on this issue. Their requests have been disregarded and have not been made public to the parents or community at large.

Pacific Collegiate serves 480 students in grades seven to 12, at the former Natural Bridges Elementary School on the Westside.

It has repeatedly been named as a top charter school, has shown up in rankings as one of the top 10 high schools in the nation and turns away hundreds of students each year.

Enrollment preference is given to children of staff members, current and former board members and to siblings of students. Open spots are doled out via a lottery.

The school accepted 80 seventh-graders this year, half of whom received a preference admission, Principal Archie Douglas said. Those receiving a preference increased diversity, he said, with 17 percent of them Latino.

That would be 6 children, of 480.  Statistically, the school cannot ever reflect the demographics of the surrounding community unless it takes bold action.  This is most decidedly not bold.

In Pacific Collegiate’s lengthy charter application, trustees compare their students’ ethnicity with that of Advanced Placement students at Harbor, Santa Cruz and Soquel high schools.

On average, 81 percent of the AP students at those schools are white, compared to 76 percent at Pacific Collegiate. At the charter school, all students take Advanced Placement courses.

AP enrollment reflects only a small component of the college-bound population in the conventional schools.  Students are also enrolled in the academies, honors, intensive, AVID and ROP courses.

Another issue of concern to some is the school’s requested donation of $3,000 per family, which detractors say can intimidate low-income families.

Townsend disputes that, saying the school is up-front about asking parents for support, via one letter per year, and that there is no pressure to donate.

Board minutes show monthly updates reflecting phone collections, reminder letters and parent-to-parent follow up.  Every donor is listed by name and donation level in the annual report.  Donors not able to make the $3,000 ask are publicly called out.

Other criticisms include that the school cherry-picks some of the area’s best students from other public high schools, which in turn siphons money from those schools. Santa Cruz City Schools Superintendent Gary Bloom said it is important to minimize that negative impact.

“PCS targets high-achieving, college-bound students,” Bloom said. “That’s a group we serve very well, and is a priority for us. And when they target those students, it has an impact on the composition of our student body.”

Pacific Collegiate officials say those students are drawn to the rigorous curriculum PCS offers, and that not all students at traditional schools are able to get into AP classes.

“What I hope the conversation ultimately could be is, what do we have to do about getting an AP curriculum for everyone?” Townsend said. “I’d love to be part of that discussion.”

Schools are rebounding from the drain on AP enrollment.  Pulling 480 high ability students out of the conventional schools had an impact on the ability of those schools to offer full sections.  PCS is not immune to this issue; it has been discussed repeatedly in board meetings.  Sections of fewer than 10 students are not sustainable; this is why PCS has approached the conventional schools to seek concurrent enrollment arrangements.

As for financial drain, Townsend said the charter school pays the district some of that back via $340,000 annual rent.

Watkins, the county superintendent, said the charter renewal application is being reviewed by the office and an outside law firm. He said the review is incomplete, but that what he had seen looked good.

“There may be some interpretation around diversity and facilities that may have to be vetted during a legal process,” he said. “There is a lot in the state ed code that is open to interpretation.”

The county Board of Education trustees chartered Pacific Collegiate about 10 years ago, when the school was founded. They did so on appeal, after the Santa Cruz City Schools district declined to grant the charter.

PCS is the only charter school the county office oversees.

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