Last month, the San Diego Unified school board voted down Thrive, a proposed charter school, despite the fact district staff had recommended its approval.

But when Thrive appealed the decision this week to the County Board of Education, staff reversed course; the same group that had earlier green-lighted the petition is now lobbying the county to shoot it down. And it might work.

Sarah Sutherland, an outside legal consultant who spoke on the district’s behalf, said Thrive sounds “good in theory,” but that it’s gone through fundamental changes that have undermined its chance of success.

Board trustees John Lee Evans, Richard Barrera and Marne Foster last month questioned the school’s viability, citing the number of times its leader, Nicole Temple Assisi, had changed or amended the petition before it came to the board for final approval.

A large part of the district’s argument focused on whether there was sufficient interest from parents who wanted to enroll their children when Thrive would open in 2015. Sutherland said that Assisi had submitted and withdrawn several petitions for different parts of town, but hadn’t collected new signatures each time.

Legally, Assisi told VOSD, she didn’t have to do that. She just needed to get signatures from half of the teachers the school planned to employ – which she had.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

She added that her willingness to work with the district is now being used as a reason to deny her.

For example, at the district’s request, Assisi withdrew a petition for a school in City Heights. But at Wednesday’s board meeting, Sutherland pointed to the withdrawal as evidence of instability.

Miles Durfee, a managing regional director for the California Charter Schools Association, said during public testimony that he had “great concerns” as to why the district was suddenly raising new criticism that hadn’t been mentioned during the several-month span that the two groups collaborated.

Former senator Dede Alpert testified at the meeting in support of Thrive, saying she was “stunned” by the mixed messages the San Diego Unified has sent Assisi and her cohort.

Assisi said she’s optimistic that the county board of education will consider the petition on its merits.

“I don’t think the district made a very good argument at the hearing,” Assisi said. “I think its message was confusing and watery, which I think points to the fact that they didn’t have any legal ground to deny me in the first place.”

She added, “The district says they take charter petitions very seriously because they care about schools and want them to succeed. But, so do I. I’m a principal, a parent, and a part of this community.”

Spokesman Moises Aguirre said that the district couldn’t comment at this time, as the petition is in the appeal process.

The county board of education will make a decision about Thrive’s future on March 27. If it’s approved, the school will be under the authority of the County Board of Education, but operate within the boundaries of San Diego Unified. If it’s denied, Thrive could appeal the decision to the state board of education.

    This article relates to: Charter Schools, Education, News, School Finances, School Leadership, School Performance, Share

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    What does San Diego Unified say it would take for them now to approve the charter school? If they are a reasonable organization, then there must be some change Assisi could make that would allow it to be greenlighted. Mr. Koran, could you find out and report on what that would be?

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran author

    Hi, @Derek Hofmann. Thanks for your question. It's a good one, although I'm not sure there's any one thing that the school board looks for -- as they're ultimately the body that denies or approves charters.   

    As I understand it, it works something like this: Anyone can get a petition going to open a charter school. In order for it to move forward, they have to meet certain requirements. They have to circulate the petition and essentially find a group of people who are "meaningfully" interested in having their children attend, and/or a group of teachers who want to work there.  The petitioner has to get signatures from 50 percent of those parents or teachers.

    The word "meaningfully" is particularly important in Thrive's case, because it essentially means the students would be able to attend when Thrive opens. Because Thrive's charter was set for a year out, the school board, and then the district, had reservations that those same parents would be interested (or have that their children would be the right age) in 2015.

    From there, the group presents the petition to the school district. In the past, the school district has worked closely with groups before their petitions were formally submitted, making suggestions on what they'd need to establish in order to be approved. Recently, school board members like John Lee Evans have suggested that the district pull back a bit on the support that it offers petitioners.  In Thrive's case, the SDUSD worked closely with petitioners for several months. 

    After the petitions are submitted, a lot more work goes down. A small group of district staff really takes a close look at the proposals, looking at the petition's merits and challenges. The district staff includes 12 different departments in the process, and asks them to weigh on the petition. There's also a "capacity interview" in which leaders from actual charter schools in the district meet and interview the petitioners to get a sense of whether they can make a charter work. 

    Based on these "findings," or what came out in the review, the district staff makes a recommendation to the school board. Essentially, staff looks at several things, such as whether the petitioner is legally squared away and if they're "demonstrably likely to succeed.

    They then recommend to the school board that the charter be denied, approved, or approved on a conditional basis. The school board then says yay or nay. They don't have to go along with the staff recommendations, but usually do.  

    I think part of the tension in Thrive's case comes from the fact that "demonstrably likely to succeed" is a relatively subjective idea. The school board, and now the board, contends that because Thrive submitted, and withdrew, multiple petitions, they can't guarantee that they'd have enough students when it opens to make it work. 

    Thrive contends that it's not the school board's job to guess whether they'll meet their enrollment projections. It's their job to look at whether Thrive meets all legal criteria, which, they say, they do.