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How a 'Sacrificial Lamb' Charter School Plans to Fight Back

The SDUSD board has the right to review district policies on charter schools. But to have changed the rules on Thrive as it was crossing the finish line suggests there was more going on.

Right now in San Diego, more than 1,000 families are on waiting lists to enter charter schools. Many of these families live in lower-income neighborhoods with under-performing schools. Others believe their children would thrive in a nontraditional learning environment.

Commentary - in-story logoSan Diego Unified School District has generally been supportive of families’ desire for expanded options and has approved charter schools that meet their strict criteria.

But last month, the district’s board of trustees signaled a sudden and significant policy shift when, in a 3-2 vote, they denied the establishment of Thrive, a charter school I’m leading. The board said the district needs to “re-examine” its approach to charter schools.

The SDUSD board has every right to review the district’s policies on charter schools. But to have changed the rules on us in the end zone — after I’d spent years on the school’s formation and worked closely with district officials to make sure we adhered to every letter of the existing rules — was simply unfair.

In denying our charter, the board bucked its own district staff’s recommendation for full approval, including months of research and combined efforts with my team to develop a K-8 charter school in Mission Valley. They also disregarded a large group of community members, teachers, state officials and private foundations that support this school, as well as the experience and excellent track record of Thrive’s team of leaders.

In the 45-minute discussion that took place during the board meeting, very little was said about Thrive’s 500-page petition for a charter. Instead, board members discussed general charter policy — deciding, apparently, to make an example of Thrive. This made a mockery of the entire charter-approval process, which I worked diligently to navigate.

At no time could the dissenting board members offer a legitimate reason for denying Thrive’s charter petition. Grasping for one, they actually suggested the changes I made to the petition at the direction of district staff – all in an effort to best serve families — were evidence that I acted in “bad faith.” They then claimed we are “demonstratively unlikely to be successful.”

This is somewhat insulting given our previous success as part of the teams at numerous nationally recognized, groundbreaking charter schools, including High Tech High here in San Diego, and the support we have from superintendents and other organizations who worked with us and know our track record.

READ MORE: Why a New High Tech High Could Complicate the School Choice Equation

Further, one of the board members said that we “lack commitment to the local community.” How can this be? We’re part of the SDUSD community. My team and I were raised here, went to school here, taught here and are now raising our own families here.

It was not the finest hour for the SDUSD board of trustees, which ignored district staff diligence and its own existing policies to deny a school that would have served the influx of families in Mission Valley. The neighborhood, by the way, does not currently have a single public elementary school. Families drive miles to get to their “neighborhood” school.

Thankfully, the County Board of Education has an opportunity to right this wrong when our appeal comes before them next week. We and the many families who indicated they want to send their kids to Thrive are counting on the county board to make their decision based on the merits of our charter petition and the need our school would serve.

The denial of Thrive’s charter by the SDUSD board was unusual – the board has never gone against district staff’s recommendation. It was so clearly unfair that, since the meeting, I’ve received dozens of calls and messages from people familiar with school board politics, suggesting that Thrive is being used as a sacrificial lamb.

I’m an educator, not a political animal. So I’m struggling to understand what would motivate three members of the board to deny our petition. Thrive is well-funded and its curriculum well-designed. It will provide a public neighborhood option school to families that have none.

I can’t argue with SDUSD’s intention to reassess its charter-granting process. It’s the board’s responsibility to set policy direction for the district. All I ask is that they have that discussion in an appropriate forum, instead of piggybacking on our petition.

Remember: If they can pull the carpet out from underneath a school like Thrive, they can do it to anyone. Our schools and the families they serve deserve clarity, consistency and a spirit of service.

Nicole Tempel Assisi is founder and chief executive of Thrive Public School. Assisi’s commentary has been lightly edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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