Charter Schools and District Schools Make Strange Bedfellows

Charter Schools UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

San Diego Unified Keeps Its Frenemies Close

Charter schools are steadily growing in San Diego. Their biggest challenge: lack of space. But thanks to a state law, some charters find a home within traditional district schools, which can make for some strange bedfellows.

On the playground at this Mountain View campus, an overhead walkway is the boundary that separates two schools.

On one side, students from San Diego Cooperative charter school play. One kid strums a guitar while a small group of friends crowd around. Another boy hangs off the monkey bars, hamming it up for a photographer before dashing across the blacktop. Girls in the corner operate a pretend hospital.

On the other side of the dividing line, Emerson-Bandini Elementary School kids play with similar vigor – but there’s a bit more structure to it. Students wear badges that say which activities they’re assigned that day. Emerson-Bandini kids aren’t supposed to run on the blacktop unless it’s part of an organized game.

Photo by Dustin Michelson
Photo by Dustin Michelson

Until recently, this space belonged exclusively to Emerson-Bandini. But under the terms of Prop. 39, which voters passed in 2000, school districts must provide charters with space – even if an existing neighborhood school currently occupies part of that area.

Last year, when SD Co-op expanded, it opened a school on the Emerson-Bandini campus. It’s a situation known as co-location – two schools sharing the same facility. Currently, six campuses in San Diego Unified are shared spaces. But as more parents opt out of their neighborhood schools in lieu of charter schools, the district could see more of it.

Charter schools are steadily growing in San Diego, and the district isn’t sure where to house them. San Diego Unified and the local charter school community maintain a kind of frenemy status: for the most part, they co-exist harmoniously. But every now and then, familiar tensions flair – usually fueled by competition over students.

For charter schools, the biggest challenge boils down to a lack of space. And when charter schools do find a home, it can make for an awkward situation.

With limited budgets – especially in a charter’s first years – purchasing their own facility is sometimes financially impossible. Sharing a campus is a more affordable option. Districts charge charter schools rent, but at reduced costs.

It’s not an ideal situation for either school. Tensions arise over practical challenges, like coordinating use of the shared auditorium, or which school gets to use the second-floor bathroom.

“It’s that roommate situation that we all had in college,” said Anthony Villaseñor, SD Co-op’s principal. “When is it my turn to use the kitchen? Who moved my cheese?”

There are cultural challenges, too, like when the two schools’ educational philosophies are at odds. As the name suggests, SD Co-op is often referred to as the “hippieschool.” Villaseñor owns that, and doesn’t consider it a knock.

Teachers at SD Co-op don’t believe lessons should be based exclusively on rigid grade levels. A child develops at his or her own pace – one third-grader might read at a fifth-grade level, but do math on a second-grade level. So the school tailors lessons to each student based on progress, and classes contain students with different ages.

A possible downside to this approach is that students get similar material two-years in a row. The expectation is that students will take concepts to a deeper level the second time around. That might be great for one student, but could feel like a repeat for another.

And one big question for parents at SD Co-op: Where will their kids go after middle school? An SD Co-op high school is in the works, but as of now, it’s only a K-8. That means parents will have to shop around – again – to find the right fit once their kids move into ninth grade.

That’s not a concern for parents at neighborhood schools. Their future schools are mapped out.

Emerson-Bandini is a traditional district school and operates, well, more traditionally. After students master the second-grade, they move on to the third, and so on. Classes allow for some differentiation, but compared with SD Co-op, theirs is more of a one-size-fits-all approach.

On the other hand, Emerson-Bandini students will ideally be on par with kids from other district schools once they move into middle school, and be ready to build the foundation they’ll need to graduate.

Parents regularly volunteer at SD Co-op and sit in on classes. On a recent tour, I saw a young father sit in class alongside students, listening to the teacher and rocking an infant strapped into a baby carrier.

Parents can visit Emerson-Bandini, too, so long as they let the school know in advance and tell them what they want to observe. SD Co-op, on the other hand, has an open-door policy with adults, which Villaseñor said this can make its neighbor uneasy.

San Diego Unified principals and school district staff declined to speak on the record about the challenges of co-location.

♦♦♦

For the district, finding space for charters can be a headache, but it’s also the law.

At the beginning of each year, charter schools submit applications if they want to take advantage of the district’s extra space. San Diego Unified considers how many district students the charter plans to enroll, then looks for similar district schools that are under capacity and will have open classrooms the following year. District staffers determine available space by considering a particular school’s layout, how it uses the space and how many students attend.

As laid out by Prop. 39, the district has to offer charter schools space that’s a “reasonable equivalent” in size and quality to what students would have if they attended their neighborhood schools.

Reasonably equivalent, here, applies to more than just classrooms. If a neighborhood school has a gym, for example, a comparable charter school should also have access to a gym.

But determining what’s fair and equitable is an imperfect system. At SD Co-op, a small trailer functions as a main office, principal’s office, teachers’ lounge and a place for counselors, school psychologists, speech pathologists and special education staff to meet with students.

Villaseñor said adults can deal with cramped quarters, but providing services like special education requires a private meeting space – something that’s hard to come by.

“That’s something district schools have to think about,” said Villaseñor. “We’ve had to cancel and reschedule meetings because there’s no confidential space available. That inconveniences adults, but it indirectly impacts kids.”

Emerson-Bandini, on the other hand, has two main offices. That’s because Emerson-Bandini is a campus made up of two nearby schools – Emerson and Bandini – that combined years ago. The youngest grades go to school on the Bandini campus, the older kids attend Emerson, a couple blocks away. Each school has its own main office.

Photo by Dustin Michelson
Photo by Dustin Michelson

Lacking private meeting areas, Villaseñor said he’s never gotten a clear answer as to why SD Co-op for the time being can’t use one of the vacant rooms Emerson-Bandini doesn’t seem to be using. (San Diego spokesperson Ursula Kroemer said that some rooms that now appear vacant are being reserved for next year, when the district plans to reduce class sizes, and take up more space).

But the bigger question is why Emerson-Bandini can’t just have one campus; SD Co-op the other. That would seem to cut down on staffing costs for both sides.

SD Co-op is expanding and will need more room next year. The district said that’s fine, so long as they split into two schools, just like Emerson-Bandini. But Villaseñor said that won’t work. He doesn’t have staff to operate two offices, and if he did, that would take away from resources he could put into the classroom, he said.

And besides, Prop. 39 requires the district to provide space that’s “contiguous,” meaning it should be located on a single campus. Emerson-Bandini might meet the district’s definition of contiguous, but not SD Co-op’s.

District staff is currently working on a revised offer that might work better for SD Co-op, but it’s late in the school year, and Villaseñor wants resolution.

“(The current offer) would essentially leave two schools fractured and divided,” Villaseñor said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the amount that San Diego Unified charges charter schools for rent and oversight. The district charges 3 percent of the charter’s revenue.

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