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San Diego Unified decided to rethink its approach to approving charter schools, and made an example of Thrive Public School. Thrive appealed to the State Board of Education – and won. The state, not the district, will now oversee its operations.
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.
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.