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Chula Vista Elementary School District and charter school leaders use words like “partnership” to describe their relationship, and district officials say they don’t view charters as competition.
The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chula Vista Elementary School District has a different kind of relationship with some of its charter schools.
Autonomous, or independent charters, are common in most districts. A district authorizes the charter but the schools operate largely on their own. Dependent charters are more closely tied to their district authorizer.
Chula Vista Elementary School District has five dependent charters and two independent charters.
At four of the five dependent charters, the superintendent of the district chose the school principal. District representatives have a seat on the school board of the dependent charters. These charters also outsource many operational services, like human resources.
“It’s definitely more of a partnership,” said Chula Vista Elementary School District Superintendent Francisco Escobedo. “Traditional public school organizations and charter school organizations can come together and learn from each other in programs and how to best create a learning environment. We have a great exchange of ideas between our public schools and our charter schools.”
Escobedo said he also views the charters as a sort of research and development laboratory for the district, since charters can try new things on a small scale.
I reached out to all the dependent charters in the district, but didn’t hear back from any of them.
I did get to chat with Josh Stepner, the director at the Leonardo da Vinci Health Sciences Charter School, an autonomous charter in the district.
Although his school has more independence, Stepner said he feels the same collaborative relationship with the district.
At other districts he’s worked in, “we were kind of the red-headed step children. We got services last, looked at last for substitutes. Hard to get things going, Not really an open relationship in terms of communication,” Stepner said.
But Stepner said he’s always invited to participate in professional development and feels that the relationship is more open than at other districts.
“Charter school principals, in my opinion, are honestly left to find their own professional development,” he said. “And it can be challenging, because when you’re in a charter, you’re immersed in your school. When you’re in a district, all the principals are brought to professional development to exchange ideas.”
It’s helpful to have open communication with the district in other ways too, such as being able to sit down with the district’s finance department when you have questions, he said.
“There are certain times when you need the district and certain times when you don’t,” Stepner said. “When things get rough at your school, say you have an incident where student brings a weapon, that’s a big deal for a school of 300. That’s where the district comes in.”
While Stepner is happy with the relationship with the district, he said he doesn’t think he would want to be a dependent charter.
“Dependent charters have to do everything that the district does, and cater to the charter community,” he said. “That’s just a lot.”
Anthony Millican, the district’s director of communications and community development, said part of the reason the district works closely with its charters that the district doesn’t view charters as competition.
“There’s always been a great deal of confidence in our public schools,” Millican said. “We haven’t been threatened by the charter movement because we’re confident that our schools can hold our own.”
Enrollment at Chula Vista Elementary School District has been increasing for some time because of its reputation and thanks to residential growth, said Millican, though he thinks enrollment is beginning to level out.
“I think we take a whole different paradigm,” said Escobedo. “They teach the kids in our community. Every child within the community of Chula Vista is our customer. I find that as being important that I’m connected to the charter schools. There also is movement of students between charters and public schools.”
But Escobedo said he has one issue with charters: when they aren’t community-grown.
“The spirit of the charter movement is that it should be locally grown by parents, teachers or community members,” he said. “They shouldn’t be working in isolation when they’re in our community, so I do have a concern with for-profit or outside entities authorizing charter schools.”
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