How the San Diego Cooperative Charter Went From Kumbaya to a Bitter Breakup - Voice of San Diego

Education UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

How the San Diego Cooperative Charter Went From Kumbaya to a Bitter Breakup

The San Diego Cooperative Charter School has prided itself on nurturing “the whole child” and encouraging kids to explore their passions. But the warm, progressive atmosphere gave way to tension and fighting as the school’s second campus in a poorer part of the city struggled.

A classroom at San Diego Cooperative Charter School, pictured in 2015, includes children of various ages. The school shares space with Emerson-Bandini Elementary School, a traditional public school. / Photo by Dustin Michelson

Since its opening 17 years ago, the San Diego Cooperative Charter School has been known as, quite possibly, the most progressive school in the city.

The emphasis is not on checking boxes or test scores, but the “whole child.” Students are invited to discover their passions. Liberal, affluent white people loved it. Many applied to get their children in.

But six years ago, the co-op embarked on an experiment to open a new school in Mountain View, a much poorer part of the city. The original campus in Linda Vista had a poverty level of roughly 27 percent, but some 52 percent of students at the new Mountain View campus lived near the poverty line.

The experiment has not gone well. Over the past year, as the destinies of the two campuses became more closely intertwined, infighting between various factions engulfed the entire community. A board member got booted. Veteran teachers left. Families started bailing from the Mountain View school. Many blamed the leadership of the executive director.

On Wednesday night, the experiment officially ended. In order to save the Linda Vista campus, where the student body is whiter and wealthier, co-op board members decided they would have to close down the Mountain View campus mid-year. Come December, Mountain View’s 184 students will no longer have a school to call their own.

Amid the chaos, the school’s population dropped by more than a third, causing the entire organization to lose money. Board members said that closing the Mountain View campus would be the only way to ensure the entire co-op organization lived on.

“It was like we had taken an empty lot and turned it into a beautiful garden,” said Sarah Moriarty, a former co-op board member, of the Mountain View school. “It was created with so much care and investment and then it just kind of got mowed down.”

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The challenges of providing a quality education, and achieving high test scores, at higher poverty schools are well documented. But back in 2013, when it opened the Mountain View campus, the co-op community believed its unique learning model should be available to everyone, not just the privileged.

Up until this school year, the Mountain View campus could not accommodate all the people who wanted to attend. Many families were happy with the school’s curriculum, which focused on social justice and social-emotional learning. The school’s official title was San Diego Cooperative Charter School 2.

The Mountain View campus also got a good reputation for serving students who need special education services, Moriarty said.

But even though many were happy, the school did worse on tests than other schools with similar demographics. As its charter came up for renewal in 2018 (charter schools must be renewed every five years) it became clear that the Mountain View campus would not be allowed to remain open because of its test scores.

Instead of let the campus close, co-op board members voted to turn the two campuses into one school. The co-op would be two campuses officially operating under one umbrella, starting at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.

This bought the Mountain View campus time, but it was still clear that test scores needed to be raised.

Meridith Coady had two children attend the Linda Vista campus and she served on the school’s foundation board. She ultimately ended up siding with many of the Mountain View parents who came to believe the school was being mismanaged.

She thinks Tom Pellegrino, the co-op’s executive director, put in place academic growth targets for the Mountain View campus that were unrealistic from the beginning.

“It’s kind of like we set ourselves up to fail,” she said. “The concern with what they were asking is the goals weren’t reachable. And so why are we [changing the school’s structure] just to work towards a situation where we can’t be successful?”

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Ultimately, Pellegrino began to make decisions that triggered an uprising at the Mountain View campus.

The board’s current president, Mollie Shannon, said some Mountain View parents and staff were unhappy because Pellegrino was pushing hard for that campus to get its academics in line.

Shannon said that was the right thing to do, because the Mountain View campus had not been infused with enough academic rigor. The child-centered approach hadn’t been wrong, she said, but there needed to be increased focus on academics.

But Moriarty, the former board member who was also a Mountain View parent, disagrees with the premise. She said the administration within the Mountain View campus was absolutely concerned with test scores and working to improve them.

Rhea Brown, who was one of the school’s co-principals at the time, said bringing the schools test scores up was important to her. And the scores had risen for two years in a row.

Still, Pellegrino swiftly moved to replace the Mountain View campus’ administration over the summer. He tried to tap a personal friend, said Moriarty and Coady, who had previously been a principal at Thrive Charter School.

Coady described her perception of Pellegrino’s attitude: “‘This is my business. I decide. I’m the CEO. And I’m the one who says what goes.’ That doesn’t fly in our co-op, unicorn bubble. That’s not how we do things.”

Pellegrino did not respond to a request for comment.

It was the way he did business, not him wanting to raise test scores that turned many in the community against him, Coady and Moriarty said.

At a school like the co-op, making sure everyone has a voice in decision-making has historically been fundamental to the organization’s values. Coady understands that Pellegrino had an organization to run, but to make quick decisions without involving the community felt antithetical to everything she had known at the co-op, she said.

Ultimately, a group of organized Mountain View parents put enough pressure on Pellegrino and the board that they considered opening the position up to other applicants. The choice came down to John Goodwin, who had been a principal at Thrive – another charter school that was recently shut down for poor test scores – and Devon Phillips, who had recently been fired from his job as a vice principal at Lincoln High School, which has faced significant struggles in the past decade.

Moriarty said board members had to choose between the two, even though she believed neither was qualified. She would have voted to keep Brown if she could, she said, but it was not an option.

Phillips wound up getting the job.

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The debacle over Pellegrino’s handling of the principal job ultimately caused a ripple effect through the community – a veteran teacher quit the board and her job, four foundation members resigned, the co-op board voted to remove one of its own members and Pellegrino ultimately resigned.

Moriarty believes his handling of the principal position at Mountain View was indicative of his wider attitude as a leader.

“He seemed to really dislike and do poorly with strong women. It’s such a cliché. But there it was,” she said. “There was also this running joke among board members about Tom’s mansplaining. He was treated like a lovable Joe Biden. ‘Oh, That’s just Tom being Tom.’”

Moriarty believes some people tolerated this as a kind of counterweight to the crunchy, hippie narrative at the co-op school – as if the place could use a dose of strong male leadership.

But Shannon, the current board president, sees it differently. “I think that it’s very difficult to come from outside the co-op and lead it. We tend to like people we’ve grown ourselves,” she said. Pellegrino had previously served as superintendent of Alpine Union School District in East County.

Shannon believes that Pellegrino was the right person to bring test scores up across the co-op schools and also to defend the school, as the political climate toward charters has become increasingly hostile.

“Tom Pellegrino was absolutely the person to lead this organization,” she said.

But Pellegrino would not outlast the principal controversy, and the Mountain View campus unraveled quickly.

Enrollment at the school dropped quickly. Roughly 50 students left over the summer, as the drama was playing out. Another 40 students left after the school year had already begun.

Erica Diamond had been a teacher at the co-op for years. She started at the Linda Vista campus and moved over to teach at Mountain View. She also served as a teacher representative on the co-op board. She quit both positions because of Pellegrino’s leadership, Moriarty and Coady said.

Coady and three others quit their positions on the school’s foundation board, which was dedicated to raising money for the schools.

Several teachers resigned over the summer.

The peak of the community’s infighting came when all but two of Moriarty’s fellow board members voted to remove her from the board. Amid the chaos, Moriarty had reached out to the California Charter Schools Association to seek information on what might be done about the Pellegrino situation.

Her fellow board members perceived this as her taking the actions of the board into her own hands, Shannon said.

The board voted to remove her in August. Out of its 10-plus members, only two, including Moriarty, represented Mountain View.

The other Mountain View parent missed the meeting and Moriarty herself couldn’t vote. In the end, just one Linda Vista board member voted to keep Moriarty on the board. Everyone else voted to dismiss her.

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Pellegrino resigned as executive director of the two campuses last month. His last day was last Wednesday.

Ultimately, 184 students will now need to find a new school in the coming weeks. The Mountain View school shares a campus with Emerson-Bandini Elementary School, a traditional public school. But it is implausible to think Emerson could enroll all 180 kids, Richard Barrera, a San Diego Unified School District board member, told me.

The Linda Vista campus does not have room to absorb them, either.

Dozens of students, many of whom already have unstable home lives, according to Mountain View’s school workers, will end up scattered across the city.

Moriarty, as well as several of the Mountain View campus’s other parents and teachers, are working to breath new life into the school. They are in talks with district officials to create a “pilot school,” which will stick to the founding vision of the co-op school.

If enough parents and teachers sign a petition, they can enter into talks with the San Diego Unified school board, as well as the San Diego teacher’s union. If the three groups can come to an agreement, the school will be allowed to operate under the district umbrella, but with more flexibility than a traditional public school.

The rough outline of that pilot school is this: The school would operate a child-centered curriculum, much like the co-op, and the district would relax hiring rules so that all or most of Mountain View’s previous staff could be hired back.

It could open as soon as July, said Barrera, who is hopeful the project will be finalized.

Last week, during a co-op board meeting, which served as a prelude to the closure, several former and current Mountain View school workers accused board members of extreme mismanagement. Dissenting voices had been silenced, they said, and decisions were made without involving the community.

A notice had gone out just two days earlier that the school might close before the school year ended.

“Most of you, the majority of you are white,” said one woman, who worked at Mountain View and whose children attended the campus. She identified herself as Latina. “From this white perspective, you see yourself as qualified to make decisions about us. But you gave these kids at Mountain View this goal [of increasing test scores] that was almost impossible to reach.”

Another school worker said: “Closing will almost certainly protect the fiscal and academic integrity for Linda Vista. But for a place founded on collaboration and community, academic and fiscal integrity is all it will protect.”

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