County Office of Education challenged on PCS Charter Renewal

The rescheduled public hearing is supposed to take place in fewer than 48 hours.  We have just received a lengthy challenge to the PCS charter renewal that addresses issues with discrimination, diversity, access, public meeting laws, admissions policies and more. The County Office of Education has received a letter from the Dannis, Wolliver, Kelly law firm outlining a number of issues with the Pacific Collegiate School charter.  The primary areas of concern are:

  • Discrimination, Racial & Ethnic Balance
  • Admission Preferences and Requirements that Prevent Diversity
  • Unlawfully Requiring Parents to make Financial Contributions & Work for the School
  • Charter must be Denied Absent Countywide Admissions
  • Brown Act Violations
  • Violation of Lease Terms
  • Failure to Produce Memorandum of Understanding

The letter references and includes excerpts from the Diversity Task Force report and includes a letter from former PCS board members imploring them to adopt the Diversity recommendations.

The letter may be downloaded here. (62 pgs, 2.7 MB)

The hearing will take place during the regular meeting of the County Office of Education, 2:00 p.m. Thursday, August 19th.

PCS to invoke in-district preference?

Story from Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ — Pacific Collegiate School, the charter school with a focus on advanced placement testing, is under legal pressure to give admission preference to students who live in the Santa Cruz City Schools district, a change that could increase the longtime tension between the charter school and the district.

PCS officials say they were instructed by their Sacramento-based law firm Middleton, Young and Minney last month to include a provision in the school’s new charter — under review by the Santa Cruz County Office of Education — that gives preference to students who live in the district. Not doing so, the attorneys say, would violate California law governing charter schools.

“Because our charter is up for renewal, we have to deal with this and deal with this now,” said PCS board President Andrew Townsend, who suggested at Wednesday’s board meeting that they ask their legal counsel for further explanation and guidance on how to handle the issue. “We need to know how much latitude we have in complying with the law.”

PCS has been grappling with the law that gives preference to students from within the district for more than a year. Trustees say charter law has evolved since PCS was founded 10 years ago.

This law has been in effect for many years. The PCS board has been fully aware of it and set up the lottery out of compliance with the law.  Parents whose children were denied their right to preference have threatened litigation.

The popular Westside charter school, which has 480 students in grades 7-12, selects students through a lottery system that is designed to admit children from across Santa Cruz County. Preference is given to children of PCS employees and board members and siblings of current students.

There is almost always a lengthy waiting list of students seeking admission as demand exceeds availability.

PCS has been criticized for not serving more Latino and special education students. District leaders have openly expressed frustration with the fact that Santa Cruz City Schools loses thousands of dollars with each student who leaves to attend PCS.

Revising the charter to favor students in the district would violate the recently negotiated lease agreement PCS signed to operate at the former Natural Bridges Elementary School on Swift Street. In June, Santa Cruz City Schools and PCS signed a three-year agreement with an option for a fourth year worth more than $1.3 million, allowing PCS to stay on Swift Street as long as they didn’t seek more students from within the district.

Interesting.  PCS would have signed this lease knowing they did not intend to comply with this condition.

Santa Cruz schools Superintendent Gary Bloom said an easy solution to avoiding the in-district preference would be for PCS to change to a countywide charter.

“Or they could petition the state for a waiver on this part of the law as others have done,” Bloom said Wednesday. “If this happens, it will bring them out of compliance on their agreement to use the Natural Bridges site and we’ll push harder on the legitimacy of their commitment in regards to serving a diverse population.”

These are reasonable and feasible solutions.  They benefit PCS by opening access (legally) to all students and would also allow the school to relocate to a more accessible and affordable site.

Townsend said it’s very likely that all open spots each school year could easily be filled with students who live in the district.

One must wonder why the school denied students who live in the district their right to preferential admission.

PCS trustee Ken Cole said this is not a change the school welcomes.

“We are not actively seeking this. It was thrust upon us,” Cole said.

See PCS minutes September 2008: Ken Cole recommended to his board that the school invoke the in-district preference in order to leverage the school’s claim to facilities under Proposition 39.  He was “actively seeking this” then, when it served their facilities agenda.  The education code is not a menu from which a public school chooses items when they suit a desire.

A public hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. Aug. 19 before the County Office of Education board to weigh the new charter.

The Education code requires that the chartering authority vote on renewal no sooner than 30 days after the hearing; the proposed vote for the following week does not comply.

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.

PCS delays diversity vote

From the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

PCS board to delay vote on diversity proposal

Pacific Collegiate School’s board will not vote on a new diversity proposal at tonight’s 5:30 p.m. meeting as initially planned, President Deepika Shrestha Ross said. Rather, the board will discuss the proposal and vote at a later time, she said.

The school’s diversity committee has drafted a proposal to set aside 10 percent of open seats for the seventh-grade admissions lottery to students who would be the first in their family to go to college or who qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program. The plan is meant to diversify the school along ethnic and socioeconomic lines.
The county Office of Education, which chartered the 480-student school 10 years ago, has urged the board to devise strategies for making the student body more closely resemble the rest of the county’s student population, which is 52 percent Latino and 40 percent white. Seveny-two [sic] percent of PCS students are white, according to the most recent figures available.

California Educational Code 47605 (b) (5) (G):
The means by which the school will achieve a racial and ethnic balance
among its pupils that is reflective of the general population residing within
the territorial jurisdiction of the school district to which the charter
petition is submitted.

The 2006 PCS Diversity Plan

 

Andrew Goldenkranz Speaks

The following letter to the Santa Cruz Sentinel was published December 10th, but never posted online.

Diversity, academic success can thrive

The endless debate over PCS’s record is deadlocked as long as people think they have to take sides on academic excellence or diversity.  The fact is, most people want both.  PCS’s academic record is exemplary and it needs to increase the bar on diversity in enrollment without sacrificing its high standards.

A recent report showed that among the 15 schools in California serving high poverty, high English learner populations with the highest record of academic achievement, 12 are charter schools.  This breakthrough finding tells me that public charters are an important part of the solution to the achievement gap problem.

A leadership team representing all sides of this debate should visit star schools like Preuss in San Diego (top 20 in the US News list, 90 percent first-generation college bound students) and KIPP Heartwood in San Jose (95 percent non native English families, 95 free and reduced lunch, API score over 900). Then the community can learn more about these fantastic charter success stories that meet the twin tests of no-excuses, high academic excellence in a high diversity environment.

Andrew Goldenkranz
Aptos