Nicole Tempel Assisi, founder and CEO of a proposed charter school called Thrive, showed up Jan. 7 at the San Diego Unified school board meeting expecting good news.

After all, Thrive’s petition to open a charter school in Mission Valley looked good. Assisi and other school leaders had spent months working with district staff, and the district committee that evaluates petitions had green-lighted Thrive, recommending it for a five-year charter.

Assisi had obtained necessary signatures from parents who were interested in enrolling their children in the school. For added support, Thrive-backers did what any group does when they want to show the school board they mean business: They appeared at the meeting wearing matching T-shirts.

Even Superintendent Cindy Marten vouched for her staff’s recommendation – if they approved it, she approved it.

Marten had a program manager who evaluates petitions explain how rigorous the evaluation process is: The applications pass through a dozen departments, from finance to special education, before they’re finally stamped. District staff and charter school administrators interview petitioners.

Thrive made the cut. But just before the group could kick off the celebration, the board abruptly cut off the music and denied the charter in a 3-2 vote.

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

Despite the fact the district recommended Thrive for approval, a few of the staff’s findings didn’t persuade school board trustee John Lee Evans, who first moved to deny the charter.

For instance, Thrive had once submitted a petition to San Diego Unified at the same time it submitted one in another district. For Evans, this spelled “bad faith in the local community.”

Evans also cited three similar charter schools that didn’t deliver on the number of students it promised to recruit, and Thrive couldn’t guarantee its case would prove different.

Trustees Marne Foster and Richard Barrera sided with Evans, and the petition was shot down.  Just like that, it was over for Thrive. For the time being, anyway.

But perhaps more interesting than the board’s decision to deny the charter was the conversation that surrounded it.

San Diego has become charter school saturated, Evans and Barrera said, and we need to raise the bar on charters before approving schools with a high potential to fail.

But why move the bar now, in the midst of the process for this particular charter school? Evans disagrees that there’s been a sudden shift. It’s more of “gradual evolution,” he said, one that started with the decision to offer petitioners less help in completing their charter school applications.

Holding charters’ hands from beginning to end doesn’t ensure that they’re appropriate candidates and is analogous to a college admission officer working closely with a college applicant, he said.

The explanation for the denial wasn’t entirely clear cut, however, and a closer look shows three reasons why the decision could be a big deal for the future of charters in San Diego.

The school board bucked district staff’s recommendations.

It appears the district staff members had a high degree of confidence when they recommended Thrive.

Staff members had three options: They could have denied the charter, granted a conditional approval (to see if a school’s funding came through, for example) or approved the charter on a one- to five-year basis. Staff members went with full approval for the first five years.

School boards don’t often vote against district staff’s recommendations, but it does happen.

Miles Durfee, a regional director of the California Charter Schools Association, said this was the first time in his year and half with CCSA that he’s seen a charter school turned away after district staff gave the thumbs-up.

Durfee, who vouched for Thrive at the board meeting, questioned whether the decision goes against the spirit of the Charter Schools Act. The law encourages school boards to approve charters unless the petitions go against one of five narrowly defined criterion, he said.

Durfee said in this case, he didn’t think the board’s argument was very compelling and wondered whether it was “more of a political decision than a factual one.”

Aside from verifiable signatures from parents or teachers who are interested in being involved in the charter, staff also looks at the soundness of a proposed charter school’s  educational program as well as its demonstrative likelihood to succeed.

In short, if the petition stands up in all five areas, the board is acting outside of its authority to deny the petition for other reasons, Durfee said.

Ricardo Soto, general counsel for the CCSA, said that a school like Thrive has a good chance on winning its petition if it appeals to the county or state education boards.

Evans disagrees that he was acting outside of his role. On the contrary, he said: He was doing his job, which is to use the staff’s findings to reach a decision about a charter school’s viability.

“We’ve seen that when charter schools fail, the students suffer,” Evans told VOSD.

Thrive was denied after making adjustments recommended by the district.

Assisi, who said she was “completely shocked” by the decision, spent several months working with district staff, adjusting her petition based its recommendations.

For example, she said her original intention was to open two charters schools, one in San Diego, and one in neighboring La Mesa-Spring Valley. Right before that petition was to be submitted, she said district staff told her the simultaneous submission might work against her, and she decided to withdraw both petitions.

This time around, she stuck to San Diego Unified. Instead of proposing a charter school for City Heights, which is already served by a large number of charters, she planned for Mission Valley.

At the school board meeting, Barrera seemed confused by all the changes, saying there was “too much ambiguity” in the petition.

Everybody seemed to agree on one point: The district staff, as well as the petitioner, had worked very hard in the submission and evaluation process. What nobody talked about was how much time or money was spent along the way.

The board has approved “less sophisticated” charters in the past.

In the past, the San Diego Unified school board has approved a number of “mom and pop charters,” said school board trustee Scott Barnett — those that have enthusiastic support from parents and educators, but not much experience running charters.

“Thrive definitely seems like it has more going for it than a number of charters that we’ve approved,” he said at the meeting.

Assisi isn’t exactly a rookie. She worked at High Tech High in its early years, and has served as a founding principal at three Los Angeles charter schools. She and Thrive leaders were awarded a grant, funded by the Gates and Broad foundations, for the innovative model that Thrive promised.

Unfortunately for Assisi, Barrera and Evans said it’s time for a change in what we consider a viable charter school petition.

“I think there’s been an evolution,” Evans said, adding that San Diego’s history of being “one of the most charter friendly districts in the nation,” has given the district enough experience to know what works and what doesn’t.

Evans said that when he first came to the board, the tendency was to automatically approve charters if they met criteria on paper. Evans said that it seemed like the decision was already made.

“At that point we asked, what are we even doing here?”

Indeed. The board has approved less sophisticated charters than Thrive, which might actually work against Assisi.

The district has seen a number of charters fail in recent years. In 2011 there was Promise, which had its charter revoked for violating state laws. And within the past month, Iftin University Prep High School announced it was closing its doors, sending students away in the middle of the school year.

Evans said that it’s difficult to close or deny a charter school when there are people who are trying hard and asking for one more chance, but “we really have to be hard-nosed about it sometimes in terms of the interest of the kids.”

But Durfee said that it isn’t fair to hold past schools against Thrive.

“It’s not really appropriate to compare a petitioner to others,” he told VOSD. To say that Thrive won’t match its enrollment projections because similar schools haven’t met them “places the burden on the petitioners and is not something that they can prove,” he said.

Before the vote, Barnett said the board needed to consider “what type of precedent we’re setting in doing this,” and that there needs to be consistency moving forward.

As for Assisi, there’s still more work to be done. She said she and others from Thrive are working with CCSA legal counsel and discussing their options.

“We’re really encouraged by Cindy Marten’s support,” she said. “We’re still committed to serving kids. I don’t think this the end of the road for us.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story indicated that district staff could deny, approve or conditionally approve Thrive’s petition. District staff can only recommend that a charter be denied, approved or conditionally approved.

    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:

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones subscriber

    Charter schools existed to help the union block the voucher movement, they are a roadblock to vouchers, a weak but more palatable to the union owned politician, a faux alternative to school choice.

    Also consider that a good charter school, one that performs well hurts the teachers union as much as it helps the children. One that performs poorly helps these greedy union members to keep getting paid well for bad results. It is in the best interest of the school board members who are in bed with their union masters to make sure any charter school approved has a good chance of being no better than a normal crappy SDUSD school.

    Jeremy Ogul
    Jeremy Ogul subscribermember

    I'm really confused by these sentences: "Staff members had three options: They could have denied the charter, granted a conditional approval (to see if a school’s funding came through, for example) or approved the charter on a one- to five-year basis. The board went with full approval for the first five years." I thought the board denied the charter?

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Its only your market if you serve it best.
    There is a reason for the growth of Charter schools in California and the growing wait list of students wanting to attend them. Currently "California has the most charter schools in the nation, with 1,130. Despite the substantial growth this year, the charter schools association said that 50,000 students statewide were on a waitlist for a charter school." according to a recent story in the Lodi news
    Huffington post puts it 1,000 last January.
    California's Charter School Boom leads the nation in both the growth and overall number of charter schools, according to a study by the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. California has approximately 1,000 charter schools, which make up just un...


    That might be one of the pivotal parts of the conversation: it seems the district can't just decide they don't want a charter because the market is "saturated" (whatever that means). The State sets the law. And it seems the charter did make the case it would be solvent, because district staff could not fault it and recommended it for a full approval. I still wonder why the board would not trust its own staff. That smells like politics to me...

    VeronicaCorningstone subscriber

    It doesn't seem that mysterious that they would have turned this application down. Things have changed. The board has approved a lot of charters in the past. The argument against the charter is that the market is saturated and recent similar charter schools have had trouble recruiting enough students. The school evidently did not make the case that they would be different enough to be solvent. They may still be able to make the case on appeal. Curiousness solved

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Could be. I'm simply pointing out the trend.
    There is a reason for his trend as those parents interested in their kids education and unhappy with the status quo are driving this alternative.

    James Wilson
    James Wilson subscriber

    This is great leadership by the board. There is no proven efficacy to charter schools. The board must have a set of tough criteria to allow operation of a charter and then enforce that criteria. This is one of the board' s reasons for existence. Sometimes they must be the parent in the room and say no.

    James C. Wilson, Ed.D.
    Author, Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration? available on Amazon and Kindle.


    With admiration for your scholarship, James, I have to respectfully disagree with you on three points as follows:

    1. "There is no proven efficacy to charter schools." Studies are mixed. Some charters are, in fact, deplorable, while others are barrier busting. Thus, while chartering is not a silver bullet solution to America's bottom rung performance (I'm thinking about PISA here), there are many charter schools that have demonstrated success (by any conceivable measure). My own position is that we should close the lousy ones but grant approval to those showing promise, including applications from award winning educators like Assisi.
    2. "The board must have a set of tough criteria to allow operation of a charter school then enforce that criteria." On this point, I agree with the role of the board regarding enforcing standards, etc., but as the article points out, the criteria for approval is set by the state. It seem plausible to me that the SD board acted outside the scope of its authority (and won't be surprised to see it overruled accordingly).
    3. "Sometimes they must be the parent in the room and say no." I doubt that you intended this to sound paternalistic, but it really comes across to me as condescending. American government, including school boards, is supposed to act as representatives of the people--not act as our "parents."

    That being said, I've ordered your book from Amazon. As a former HS dropout who managed to escape a dead-end chlldhood and as a professional that has worked in both adult and juvenile prisons, I'm most interested in reading your prescriptions. I'm also interested in how charter schools might provide part of the solution.

    Warm regards,
    Brian L. Carpenter, PhD

    Author: Charter School Board University
    The Seven Outs: Strategic Planning Made Easy for Charter Schools

    David LaRoche
    David LaRoche subscriber

    Charter schools are public schools also. I wish the SDUSD Board would make decisions base on student success, not on bureaucratic influence. Both charter schools and traditional schools should work together to help student succeed. Education is a once in a life-time chance, let all student have a chance for a brighter future. It is troublesome that the SDUSD Board is coming after new charter and existing successful charters; this would be a sham if true. The board shouldn't take all of its direction from the union, however, reach into their harts and vote for children first.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    Seems pretty simple. Count the board members completely beholden to the Teacher's union. Let's see, John Lee Evans, Richard Barrera and Marne Foster. The names seem familiar. By the way, has the charter school in the Schoobrary opened yet? Has the charter been granted?

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    San Diego Unified has a long history with Charters. Since the inception of Charters in the mid 90's 1/3 of all Charters have failed in San Diego Unified. The number one reason for these failures is financial fraud. All money lost from Unified's general fund from the fraudulent Charters is not recoverable.

    The information about Charters and San Diego Unified came from an article in VOSD by a terrific reporter, Emily Alpert, it was done several years ago

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for reading. I think you might be referring to story below. If you are, she reported that the number one reason for charter school closure is "financial woes," meaning insolvency. Some of the schools also dealt with fraud or theft.When Charters Close, Public Schools Foot the Bill, Dec. 4, 2007 | Spending scandals brought down Children's Conservation Academy, a City Heights charter school shuttered in 2007, only two years after it opened. A year earlier, A. Phillip Randolph Leadership Academy dissolved, with questions ...

    Heather Poland
    Heather Poland subscriber

    Not sure why VoSD is championing charter schools. I am not against teacher-led charter schools, but for-profit charters that get money from Gates are highly suspect. They are contributing to the privatization of public education. Good for the board for voting it down! ^0^

    Dennis subscriber

    Hmmm....Magnolia Charter? I was under the impression they were for profit.


    Heather, all charter schools in California are public and not for profit. San Diego Unified also receives numerous grants, including grants from Gates and Broad.

    Lou Dodge
    Lou Dodge subscriber

    Michael, what school has graduation rates in the teens? You say, '"They're ruining kids, especially an astonishing rate." Who is 'they'? Government schools? Government schools are ruining kids at an astonishing rate? What is your criteria for 'ruined'? Well, there is always room for improvement but charter schools are not some panacea that will cure everything especially at the expense of a neighborhood school. Many news articles point out how resources are taken away from the public school and it is often minority kids who are left without any choice. Ugly Truth about Charter Schools: Padded Cells, Corruption, Lousy Instruction and Worse Results your five-year old boy went to a school where he was occasionally thrown in a padded cell and detained alone for stretches as long as 20 minutes. Or you sent your kid to an elementary school where the children are made to sit on a bare floor ...

    Michael Robertson
    Michael Robertson subscribermember

    Government schools are rigged games. They're meant to look fair with all the trappings such as a theoretically objective board, but the reality is the teacher's union controls the board. Therefore any change which does not grow the union will be blocked. Any perceived threat will be attacked like Charter schools, vouchers or even community initiatives like Up for Ed.

    It's outrageous that a sitting board member can suggest that if a charter school failed then it hurts the kids when the district has schools with graduation rates in the teens. They're ruining kids - mostly minorities - lives at an astonishing rate. Nobody seems to care. It's all about protecting the system.

    Stuart Morse
    Stuart Morse subscriber

    Do you have any evidence to support your claim that Teacher's Unions control the school board?

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga memberauthor

    Your comment ignores the board/teachers union battles in recent years.


    I applaud the Board. San Diego School Board and Marten need to improve the public schools and stop approving charter schools that compete with the public schools for students and money.

    VeronicaCorningstone subscriber

    Who is forced to send their children to a crappy local school? There is school choice, magnet, veep, and plenty of existing charters, not to mention private schools. San Diego offers more school choice than any other school district I know of.

    ScrippsDad subscriber

    Veronica - I was responding to DPL who said:

    I applaud the Board. San Diego School Board and Marten need to improve the public schools and stop approving charter schools that compete with the public schools for students and money.

    I agree with you. As a parent I have a choice for my kids and I maintain I should always have choice to provide the best educational opportunities for my children and that includes Charters. I do not agree that Charters should be stopped and that I should be forced to send my child to a SDUSD public school while the School Board and Marten try and "improve" them. If a Charter meets the legal requirements and provides an opportunity to further and/or enhance children's education and performance, they should be allowed and I have the choice to try and get them in, or not.

    ScrippsDad subscriber

    @dpl - so, I should be forced to send my two boys to a crappy underperforming local school and their education should suffer instead of having the choice to send them to a high performing Charter School just so SDUSD can work to improve their schools? Why are my kids to suffer for internal operational problems of the District? You don't think competition for quality education is good and that a monopoly where there are no performance measures, no accountability or choice for parents is ok?