That charter school the San Diego Unified school board tried to kill has roared back to life.

Thrive Public School was approved by the State Board of Education Wednesday night in a unanimous decision. The school will open in September.

Earlier this year, after spending months working with San Diego Unified staff, Thrive’s founder Nicole Tempel Assisi presented the school board her petition to open a charter school.

The petition had been vetted by various district departments, and was recommended for a five-year charter – its highest vote of confidence. The petition was so convincing Superintendent Cindy Marten gave it the thumbs-up.

It wasn’t enough to convince trustee John Lee Evans, however, who first moved to deny the charter. He noted how Thrive had once simultaneously tried to open a charter in San Diego Unified and another district, and said it represented bad faith in the local community.

Assisi had been a founding principal at Los Angeles charter schools, worked at High Tech High in its early years and had been awarded a grant from the Gates and Broad foundations for the innovative model that Thrive promised.

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

But ultimately Thrive was shot down in a 3-2 vote. Why the board decided to move the goalposts on this particular charter school was hazy.

The vote, and a separate move by the board in which it raised the bar on which charter schools would be eligible for a slice of Prop. Z money, kick-started a new round of debate about the school board’s relationship with charter schools.

Thrive wasn’t finished. It appealed the decision to the County Board of Education. That came with a bizarre twist: The same San Diego Unified staff that once supported the petition argued the County Board should reject it.

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

It worked. Thrive was denied. Again.

Thrive appealed again, this time to the state. Thrive’s petition faced another review board, another round of vetting, another hearing before the State Board of Education, where it had 10 minutes to make its case. San Diego Unified had the same. And once again, Thrive faced opposition from a onetime supporter: Marten.

Even though Marten, months earlier, had vouched for her staff’s decision to green-light Thrive, she wrote a letter to the State Board asking it to deny the school, citing concerns over its support for English learners. (Read the letter here.)

But this time, Thrive won out.

Thrive is scheduled to open in the fall. Assisi said there are spots for 160 students, half of which are currently filled. Assisi has been interviewing teachers, and has a list of nine finalists – six of whom will get the nod for the fall.

Assisi will soon sign a lease for the school, she said. Even though the school will exist within San Diego Unified boundaries, it will be overseen by the state, which will monitor its test scores and finances.

The state will also visit the school twice a year, over the course of Thrive’s five-year charter.

Of course, because Thrive won’t be part of San Diego Unified, it also won’t see any of the bond money that other charter schools in the district will receive.

For Assisi, that’s a rub, but she said it’s not what matters most.

“We didn’t come to San Diego to have access to bond money,” she said. “We didn’t come to pick a fight. We came to San Diego because there’s need and kids across the city on waiting lists for charter schools – because there are students across the city living in poverty, not meeting their potential.”

Still, it was a fight – one that cost Thrive and San Diego Unified time and money.

Assisi said the process also cost them a grant that they’d won, but ultimately lost because the school’s charter hadn’t been approved on time.

Thrive has a lot of work to do before it’s ready to open in fall, but Assisi said it’s the kind of work she got into the profession to do.

“We have such an expedited timeline now, and that wasn’t necessary. It’s unfortunate that so much time and money was wasted – on both sides. It’s unfortunate that this wasn’t spent on children,” she said.

    This article relates to: Charter Schools, Education, News, 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:

    dana deima
    dana deima subscriber

    Thanks Dennis, excellent articles!  I also followed the 'Recovery Schools' in New Orleans after Hurricane about taking advantage of a natural disaster! And there was a court case filed by teachers who were not brought back to their jobs after Katrina because their jobs were given to people willing to work at 'charter' schools.  The teachers won that case.  

    I will also echo Francesca here regarding Diane Ravitch's book.  It is a must read for anyone interested in what is happening in this country regarding privatization of the public school system.

    francesca subscriber

    Outstanding articles, Dennis.  I was aware of the faux crisis response in New Orleans, but not what has happened over the nine years since.  Terrible picture of greed and misinformation.

    Some good info in the New York article..inflated salaries for charter CEO' illustration of how charters take money away from educating children and put into corporate profits. I like what the new mayor, Blasio,  is doing.

    Michigan, I had no idea, but do know that American Legislative Exchange Council.(ALEC)...writes these laws for MI and California and many more states.  All favor charter takeover...Lots of money, poured into Newark, even the Facebook founder,Mark Zuckerberg,  donated a 100 million dollars, yet the results are terrible.

    Good book..The Death and Life of the American School System by Diane Ravitch. Comes to the same conclusions...That charters are no better than public school.

    Scott Hasson
    Scott Hasson subscriber

    You have to wonder why the SDUSD has all of a sudden taken to task every application for a charter school.  The fact that charter schools give children and their parents an alternative to education should be what SDUSD is all about.  

    The SDUSD only exists to educate children and if parents think their kids would do better in a charter environment that is not held back by archaic work shop rules for teachers and ridiculous curriculum that only slows down a child's achievements.  You have to wonder if teachers and administrators that control the SDUSD board have another hidden agenda to stopping charters.

    The reality is SDUSD is not a highly thought of educational institution and it is not looking out for children s education as much as employee paychecks.  The SDUSD board is stretching themselves now and they got stomped on by the state.  You cant give a charter and then take it away.  You cant act like a you care and then try to take back all the work gone into gaining a charter. 

    This SDUSD board if out of touch with reality.  The fact that parents have moved 10% of the district's children out of the district is a prime example of a complete failure to do their job over the last few years.

    This board, this school district is an utter failure.  SDUSD is ruining children s education and we need to vote for common sense leadership to change this.  If the teachers union is supporting any candidate or issue you know it is bad to children and we MUST vote against that.  

    We have to take back our schools, or we just let charters and private schools lead the way to education. Either way, SDUSD is broken!

    francesca subscriber

    Mario, Give a little credit to Scott Barnett, for the new, less friendly face, the school board is showing to Charters.  I know he voted for this "for profit" one, but in a comment made June 26, in response to a Voice of San Diego article, "Fightin' Words from the School Board's Lone Wolf" (article written June 21), Barnett wrote, and I quote, "It was at my urging that we created stricter criteria for approving charter schools."

    Not Cindy's fault.  She does what the board tells her to do.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    After all the accusations and innuendo presented by the several commentators, the unanswered question, it seems to me, is this:  Why would the state reverse the decisions by the district and county boards and grant this charter?  Is it possible they saw a questionable agenda at work in these two pristine organizations?  Oh, there I go, engaging in speculation and innuendo.  Darn!

    David subscriber


    Charter schools are part of the public educations system!! Charter schools are public school, not private? People need to state the truth/facts, not be the mouth-piece for the union led schools. Let's all spend time researching issues. Places students first! Also, many charter schools in the poorest neighborhoods in San Diego outperform SDUSD schools. Look at Tubman and others in the area? Go to the California State web page and find out who out-performs who!

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    @David LaRoche Some charters are run by for profit company's just like the company that had their charter school rejected and then approved by the state, as this article states. Granted there are some charters  who out preform the public schools and there some public schools that out preform charters, as a whole test scores are about the same for both. Don't you think that if charters were out preforming public schools parents and school boards would be clamoring to make all schools charters? That is not the case. 

    Here are a couple of things about charters and San Diego you can look up. Since their inception in the mid 90's a little less then 1/3 of the charters in San Diego Unified have failed, most of these failures have been due to financial fraud. All money lost is not recoverable. Maybe that is why the school board is being more careful about who they grant charters to.

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    Charters are here to financially break the public education system and to privatize all of public education. Can some one please post truthful information that Charters are superior to public education and consistently out preform public schools on standardized tests. I'm pretty sure that if that is the case that information would be all over the news. 

    There is one Charter in San Diego that gets plenty of publicity, that being the Preuess Charter in La Jolla. Here a couple of facts about the school. They recruit the best and the brightest from the local schools, that is the students that score the highest on standardized tests are pursued and teachers and administrators from the students local school are used to put pressure on students parents to sign up for the schools intake lottery. Beside recruiting the best and the brightest they also limit their students by income. The family must be low income, near poverty level. So when the all students score high on the tests the news outlets trumpet what a success and outstanding school this is. 

    The bottom line is they recruit the best and brightest students, hand pick their faculty and then brag about what and outstanding school they are based on test scores and students that go on to college. Gees, I think I could run an outstanding school if I had the best students and teachers. For some prospective, public schools must accept all students regardless of IQ level, test scores or income. 

    Be careful what you wish for with Charters. Local control of the school boards will be gone, boards will be made by investors from Wall St. and profits will be the main issue not education. Be very careful!!!!!!

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @richard brick That's why schools should be evaluated not on how well students score on tests but on how much they improve.

    Maura Larkins
    Maura Larkins subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann @richard brick

    Yes, you're right, Derek, and, happily, when people talk about test score results they're very often talking about the amount of improvement by students. There is a commonly-used measure called "value-added" which gives us the average number of months or years of academic improvement by the students of a given teacher.  Here's the Wikipedia article about Value Added Modeling:

    It's much easier to improve the scores of average and advanced students than it is to bring up the scores of kids who are behind.  In fact, Michelle Rhee was accused, when she was Superintendent of Washington DC schools, of focusing resources on the more upscale schools in the district, and abandoning the lowest-performing schools. I can understand that Ms. Rhee may have felt that she had to use such tricks in order to have significant increases in test scores.

    I agree with Mr. Brick that the Preuss School might not look so great if it accepted any child, perhaps using a lottery system.

    I'd like to offer a challenge to the Preuss School: how about you start another campus that accepts students at random, and see if you can also be successful with those kids?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Maura Larkins "It's much easier to improve the scores of average and advanced students than it is to bring up the scores of kids who are behind."

    When you're using value-added, because it's impossible to improve a student who's at the 100th percentile as there is no 101st percentile, it can only be easier to improve the scores of students who are behind.

    Maura Larkins
    Maura Larkins subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann @Maura Larkins 

    A student who is at the 99+%ile (there is no 100%ile) can most definitely improve.

    Let's say you have a third-grader who scores at a ninth-grade reading level.  The next year, this child is almost certain to advance to tenth-grade or higher reading level.  Of course, his (or her) percentile wouldn't change.  

    If every single child were to improve one grade level each year, then each child would have exactly the same percentile score each year, but would nevertheless be scoring at a higher performance level.  

    Unfortunately, a student who is two years below grade level is much less certain to advance a year or more during a school year.  These students are usually not given proper instruction.  They are likely to sit in class while everything goes over their heads because teachers "don't have time for the kids who are behind."

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Maura Larkins A student who scores at the top of the class one year cannot score higher than the top of the class the next year. So at best, that student can only remain at the same percentile rank from year to year. Do we agree so far?

    Now let's say that being two years below grade level puts a student in the 15th percentile. Would it not be easier to increase that student's percentile rank by 5% than it would be to increase a 94.99th percentile student's rank by 5%?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Maura Larkins "You're NOT talking about how much actual improvement a student makes."

    I'm not talking about absolute improvement, I'm talking about improvement relative to the student's peers, which is far more important in a competitive world.

    "If everyone makes more progress year after year, the percentiles remain the same."

    And even if everyone makes more absolute progress year after year, ivy league schools won't admit everyone who scores above a certain SAT level--they'll just raise their standards. That's one reason why improvement relative to the student's peers is more important than absolute progress.

    "The upscale schools don't need the best teachers; the downscale schools desperately need them."

    This is another reason why evaluating improvement relative to the student's peers is important: helping the lower percentile students suddenly becomes the easiest way to a promotion for teachers who are good at working with them. Previously, those same teachers only wanted the best and brightest students.

    Maura Larkins
    Maura Larkins subscriber

    When you talk changing percentiles, you're talking about kids going up or down RELATIVE to other kids.

    You're NOT talking about how much actual improvement a student makes.

    In your scheme of things, a kid who gets the top score in the whole country year after year, and rapidly raises his (or her) level of performance each year, has NOT improved.

    You are also saying that a child who is in a low percentile to start with, who improves a little bit--but is still far below grade level--has improved MORE than the first kid!

    This makes no sense.

    Percentiles only allow you to know which kids are higher and which kids are lower. 

    Percentiles don't give you information about what kids actually know.  If everyone makes less progress year after year, the percentiles remain the same.  If everyone makes more progress year after year, the percentiles remain the same.

    We want to know whether the student population as a whole is getting better, staying the same, or losing ground.  This is CRUCIALLY important. 

    So we're not really much interested in looking at percentiles. Your mom is interested in your percentile, and college admissions departments are interested, but society as a whole is more interested in whether students are raising their grade levels.

    The fact is that we ARE able to measure the improvement of the high performers by looking at changes in their grade level, and we know that teachers don't have to put very much effort into getting the high-performer to improve their academic performance.

    We are also able to measure the improvement of low performers by looking at changes (or lack of change) in their grade level, and experience shows that teachers have to put a lot more effort to get that improvement.

    That's why so many people are furious that low-income schools don't have the very best teachers.  The upscale schools don't need the best teachers; the downscale schools desperately need them.

    francesca subscriber

    @richard brick  So true, Richard, Charters were created to privatize education for profit.  But another very important reason they are promoted is:  The teachers' union is the biggest contributor to Democrats.  Charter schools, like Right to Work States, destroy the labor unions and the middle class.  Result, Democratic resources dwindle.

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    @Maura Larkins I have no problem with what you posted except for one part where you wrote about colleges being interested in scores. These standardized test scores are not looked at by colleges, only the ACT  and the other college entrance exam which I can't think of right now,(senior moment). The standardized test scores are not used for grades, promotion to the next grade or admission to college.

    Maura Larkins
    Maura Larkins subscriber

    Hi Richard.  Yes, that's what I meant when I said colleges are interested in percentiles.  They want to know how a student did, compared to other students, on the ACT and/or SAT.  You're right that they don't look at standardized tests given by high schools.

    Maura Larkins
    Maura Larkins subscriber

    @Mario Koran @Kathy S

    Yes, Mario, we all see what Kathy S "did there."  She listed the five organizations that gave grants to Thrive.  Then she asked a question that brought our attention to the fact that one of those five organizations--the Girard Foundation--is led by Buzz Woolley, founder and donor of Voice of San Diego.  She was being very gentle with her subtle message.  I would have been more direct.  I would have said that this is the sort of information that should be included in a "full disclosure" message attached to your story.

    Also, how about you ask Ms. Assisi to tell us in one or two sentences what is the main idea of her educational philosophy?  What is it that makes her plan innovative?

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran author

    @Maura Larkins Sure, I could have written about Thrive's educational philosophy -- even though I did link to the presentation the school gave to the state -- but then I would've gotten away from the reasons Thrive was denied by the San Diego Unified school board in the first place. If you weren't at that meeting, you're welcome to check it out on the district's meeting archives. You'll note that Thrive's educational philosophy wasn't really a consideration in the board's decision for voting it down.

    As far as your and Kathy's suggestion of my bias, I think, respectfully, it's a red-herring that distracts from the issues at play. I didn't answer Kathy's question because it sounded to me rhetorical. The Girard Foundation wasn't mentioned in the piece, and had nothing to do with my reasons for following the story. Of course, you're entitled to your opinions.

    Whether every charter school that's authorized offers an educationally sound and fiscally responsible model is a valid concern. But it's a discussion the district and community should have in the open -- before a charter school is denied. Especially if the charter worked for months with the district, and the district helped shaped that very petition. 

    Maura Larkins
    Maura Larkins subscriber

    @Mario Koran @Maura Larkins 

    I think you have a great story here, Mario.  The about-face by Cindy Marten and the district is disgusting.  This charter had no problems until the issue moved into the political arena.  

    So why not trust your readers to see this?

    The fact that Buzz Woolley is a bigshot at both the Girard Foundation and Voice of San Diego doesn't prevent the story from being accurately reported and newsworthy.

    You could have avoided the distraction of this issue by doing a full disclosure up front.  A full disclosure is NOT a red herring.  It's an expected practice that allows readers to judge for themselves whether or not the story is biased.  Emily Alpert used to include disclosures when she wrote about Buzz Woolley. 

    For the record, I do not think your story is biased. I think you did a public service by writing it.

    David subscriber

    This is great news for Thrive and the charter movement. Now charters will pray that their charters are denied so they can be authorized by the state who truly would like to see children succeed. Districts should not authorize the same people they want to get rid off? As far as the shenanigans Superintendent Martin and the SDUSD Board is pulling on the charter schools and the tax payers, are appalling. How many charter projects have started construction on district sites to date. I hear zero. The SDUSD schools have millions devoted to their projects. The tax payers are being taken for a ride. People stand up! Charter children have the right to a proper education and a clean safe environment. Its not all about unions and their jobs; at least, throw some thought in the idea of helping children with the hope off a brighter future. Charter schools is the civil rights issue of today!

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    It must have at some point if it was originally supported. However some of the criteria are subjective, providing the district the ability to easily deny any organization. Yes they were clearly victimized.

    klipywitz subscribermember

    Given SDUSD staff recommended Thrive for approval and it was SDUSD's board that decided to go against its own staff recommendation, I would say reasons for denying this charter school were not technical, legal, or educational as all departments review the petition and signed off. Victimized might be one way of putting it. Politically motivated decision-making might be another.