Tensions ran noticeably deep for the second time this month at the Santa Barbara Unified School District’s board meeting Tuesday evening. Deliberations over the district’s upcoming decision whether or not to grant a renewal for Santa Barbara Charter School (SBCS) rallied dozens of parents and faculty from the petite K-6 school located on the Goleta Valley Junior High School campus.
Facing an arguably unforgiving staff report — which recommended boardmembers approve the charter but with certain conditions — Charter School administrators and parents challenged the district’s findings that the school’s education program and financial projections are “unsound” and “[do] not meet the likelihood for future success.”
The report’s critical language reflects state education code, Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Emilio Handall explained to a wary crowd. Handall wrote the report and told audience members — many wearing bright green buttons that said “Ask Me About Santa Barbara Charter School” — that the process is required by state law.
Directives for Charter School presented by district staff included the following: creating fiscal projection, Professional Learning, and Common Core State Standards transition plans; coming up with descriptions of how to accommodate students at varying achievement levels; and taking action to better balance the school’s racial composition. The school’s Director of Operations Dave Weisman said the renewal process has been “about as different as we could have imagined” from past years, claiming the district’s report uses selective data to misrepresent the school as a whole and reaches “erroneous conclusions.” He said he wanted the district to grant the charter without the conditions.
Debate about the school’s overwhelmingly white campus and low test scores consumed much of the meeting’s public comment portion and subsequent input from trustees. Several concerned parents — a few mentioned their Hispanic background — took to the podium to commend Charter School administrators, who also tag-team as part-time teachers, for their dedication to a “holistic education” and using outside-the-box instructional methods with certain students.
Boardmembers acknowledged overwhelming praise from parents in person and via numerous emails, but they also pointed to the fact that the school’s ethnic and racial makeup is close to a mirror opposite of K-6 students in the rest of the district. The report found 18 percent of Charter School students — 234 students are currently enrolled — are Hispanic, while in the entire district roughly 70 percent of elementary school students are Hispanic.
The report calls for a 10 percent growth of Latino students enrolled each year for the next five years, which equates to 27.9 percent of Latino students enrolled by the 2018-2019 school year. In response to recent emails she had received, Board President Monique Limón said, “I’m not clear on why having two or eight more Latino students in a school is so upsetting to families.” After several crowd members vocally opposed the claim, she clarified, “Not all families.”
Charter School attorney Jennifer McQuarrie — who joined Weisman and Director of Education Bev Abrams at the podium — later noted that the district’s requirement of a certain racial makeup at the school could be interpreted as an illegal quota system. Boardmember Ed Heron also expressed concern about the report’s demographic target, because although the school’s racial composition should seek to match that of the district’s, he said new students, who get in via a lottery system, are admitted on a “pure gamble.”
In terms of test scores, while comparing Charter School to three other traditional schools — which had similar demographics where white students are the majority group — the report indicated Monroe, Roosevelt, and Washington students outperformed Charter School students by 67-87 points on Academic Performance Index (API) tests. Weisman countered that the school’s score of 844 is well above the benchmark for an academically sound program and has improved by 47 points in the past two years.
Analysis of test scores found that all of three of the aforementioned schools outperformed Charter School in English/language arts and in math. For English/language arts, 76.3 percent of Charter School students passed the STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) test, while between 86.4 and 90.2 percent of students at Monroe, Roosevelt, and Washington passed. In math, 70.1 percent of Charter School students passed compared to 89.9 and 91.3 percent at the other schools.
Limón continued to emphasize that the charter renewal process is not intended to be an “I gotcha,” but an opportunity to look for ways to improve the school while respecting its independent governance model. In concluding comments, Weisman said: “When we read [the report], it felt like an ‘I gotcha’ moment.”
Described as “difficult” but a step toward “moving forward” by the end of the two-hour discussion, Tuesday’s meeting marks the fourth time the 20-year-old-school has endured the renewal process. Within the next few weeks, Charter School administration is expected to address the conditions outlined by the district, and the boardmembers will conclude with a verdict on November 12.