A New School for the Mission?

If approved by the San Francisco Unified School District, a proposed public charter school  will open in the Mission District in August 2011 with a class of 90 kindergartners and 60 first graders and will eventually grow to serve grades K-8.

The Mission Preparatory school would focus primarily on low income and immigrant students from the neighborhood.

At present, the Mission District has only one K-8 school, the Edison Charter Academy. Only one public school in the neighborhood, The George R. Moscone School, met state educational benchmarks last year, though some have made gains in recent years.

“Every single child has the potential to succeed at the same high level. It is our job as the people who are founding the school and the community in general to work in partnership to meet their needs and make sure they meet their potential,” said Jane Henzerling, a former public school teacher and the driving force behind the school.

Henzerling, who will be the school’s principal if it is approved,  is a fellow at the Boston-based Building Excellent Schools. Each year, the non-profit trains a handful of educators to propose and run charter schools. One alum founded a Harlem school that ranked in the top one percent of New York City public schools in its first year. Other schools affiliated with the organization in East Boston, Cleveland and Denver have shown strong performance.

In her meetings with dozens of parents and community leaders over the last several months, Henzerling said, one thing is clear,  “Parents are open to any new and quality educational opportunity for their children. The concept is totally welcomed and embraced.”

Despite that, no one showed up to Mission Prep’s first informational meeting, held yesterday morning at the Women’s Building. Henzerling chalked the lack of attendance up to insufficient outreach and the time of day. She’s optimistic that the school’s next meeting, scheduled for March 18 at 5:30 p.m., will draw a bigger crowd.

Henzerling must submit to the school district 150 signatures of parents who would potentially be interested in enrolling their children in the school. So far she has 70.

Still, Henzerling says community interest in the school is strong, and she plans to keep reaching out to parents as she’s been doing since fall — by attending Boys and Girls Club and Mission Neighborhood Centers events and connecting with parents through Head Start and ESL classes.

Charter school advocates like Peter Thorp, who was the founding principal of the public charter Gateway High School, says charter schools have more freedom than traditional district schools to tailor their curricula to the needs of their particular students.

Because they don’t have to follow significant portions of the state education code, “charter schools are able to be innovative and nimble to both create schools and develop programs that best meet the needs of students at the school,” said Thorp.

In addition to a longer school day and year, Mission Prep will help students become literate in their first language while learning English. There will be extensive after-school support for students whose parents don’t have the time or skills to help their children with their homework. And a college-going culture will be fostered from the get-go; kids will visit university campuses and hear have college student guest speakers each year.

Peter Avila, principal of the traditional public school Marshall Elementary, which made great gains in test scores over the last year, said parents should have choices within the public school system. “I’m not afraid of it. I think our school is a great place to send your kids. If [charter schools] siphon some kids away from the public schools, obviously they’re offering something that the other schools aren’t.”

The Mission District’s  one public charter school, the Edison Charter Academy, is operated by a for-profit company and is not part of the San Francisco school district. It did not meet the state standard for academic achievement last year, but also showed strong improvement.

But any charter school, even if approved by the school district, faces challenges, said Thorp.

The first hurdle is convincing parents to enroll their children in a school that has lofty ambitions but no track record of success. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly, said Thorp. “Charter schools are public schools, however they should be looked at very carefully to make sure the program offerings are going to serve your child the best,” he said.

New charter schools should also be careful not to over-promise to parents, Thorp said. “In a startup phase, there’s always a sorting out between people’s expectations and the reality of what’s possible given the programs and resources available. A charter school has to be very transparent in what it can do and what it cannot do,” he said.

Funding is another potential hurdle, said Thorp. Public charter schools, like all public schools in the state, get state funds based on how many students they enroll. But charter schools must pay for their facilities out of those funds, whereas traditional public schools can tap into other pools of money such as developer fees, local and state bonds.

On the other hand, since most public charter schools, like Mission Prep, are 501c3 non-profit organizations, they can raise funding from individuals and foundations. President Obama has made $52 million in new funds available for public charter schools. And, if Mission Prep earns its charter, it will be eligible to apply for a quarter of a million dollar grant from the Walton Family Foundation, the charitable organization founded with  Wal-Mart founder’s Sam Walton’s fortune.

The school board will decide whether or not to grant Mission Prep a charter by the end of May.

17 Comments

  1. CarolineSF

    The Mission District has a number of successful schools that are highly popular with parents of all demographics from outside the area; test scores don’t tell the whole story. Leonard Flynn, Marshall and Buena Vista are in high demand, and Cesar Chavez and Bryant are getting new attention. Nearby Fairmount is very popular and nearby Paul Revere is up-and-coming. Flynn, Fairmount, Marshall, Buena Vista, Fairmount and Paul Revere all offer two-way Spanish language immersion, which benefits both native Spanish and English speakers and is a type of program SFUSD runs very successfully. Opening a new school (and one run by an outsider that’s an unknown quantity, no matter how much success they claim 3,000 miles away) will hurt these existing schools without offering students better choices than they have now.

    Also, charter schools are highly controversial, and many charter critics (including me) view them as a weapon intended to weaken and ultimately destroy public education. Mission Loc@l needs to talk to critics as well as spokespeople from the well-funded charter sector.

  2. Educator

    Caroline, popularity with parents does not mean the school is successful or doing its job. Parents often don’t work in the educational sector and they may not possess the knowledge to assess a school’s effectiveness (just as I would not be able to effectively assess an institution outside my specialty). Moreover, many parents are often not exposed to great schools (traditional, charter, private, magnet-they come in many forms) so they may think what they have looks good because it meets minimum standards. However, the question of true college readiness is a different story.
    Also, charters don’t weaken public education. The system, especially in CA, has been broken for a long time. Strong schools, in whatever form, help the system. We can’t cling to an ineffective institution just because it has been around for a long time. We need to look for ways to change it and make it more effective so our children can compete globally. Right now, we are failing in many respects.
    I am not a charter advocate. I am an advocate of high performing schools.

  3. Former Charter School Parent

    As a parent of two children who got stuck in a SF approved charter school,(SFUSD refused to place them elsewhere AFTER I learned how bad the school was. It took two years of lottery to get them out.) Charter schools are not a panacea – they are fiefdoms. They are about making $ for the admins and the charter school industry. We have a checks and balances with SFUSD- we can vote out the school board if they aren’t doing their jobs. Don’t be fooled.

  4. Lisa

    Well, blah, blah, blah, who isn’t for the children? Given that schooling is compulsory, it is therefore, a Legal Right. And if it is a Right in our democracy, then our government is compelled to enforce it. If it is truly FREE for ALL (public), then the government is compelled to finance it. That’s why “PUBLIC School- IS Democracy in Action.” If FREE schooling wasn’t compulsory, then the FREE market model (the FOR SALE) model would make sense. Charter schools are nothing more than sell-out recipients of charity, begging for money, because our education not free, but rather for sale. “How can this be a free country if everything is for sale?”-Northern Star.

  5. Lisa

    Yikes,I apologize to Former Charter School Parent. (I didn’t see your comments… Maybe it was awaiting moderation?) What I meant to say is, “Who isn’t an advocate of high performing schools?” I was mimicking the “understated” soundbites.

  6. Panifo

    Wow – I’m so surprised by some of the comments posted. I’m not a paid educator – and I’m not a political activist. What I am is a Mom and the idea of more educational choice is something I find very exciting even though my own children are now out of school. Children aren’t cookie-cutter and one size does not fit all. While my kids were in school I had to fight for quality education because I couldn’t afford to buy the best. It was a struggle but mine were the first in our entire family to graduate from college. Maybe competition doesn’t mean that some of the schools will lose enrollment – maybe instead it means that all schools will work harder to provide quality and even more children will have access to that quality.

  7. Educator

    Lisa,
    My comment about being an advocate of high performing schools was directed towards individuals like yourself who seem to think that the only type of school we should support is a traditional public school that comes under the umbrella of a school district. The charter vs. district argument is a false dichotomy. There is no panacea in either camp. Therefore, the question should be “What are high performing schools (any type) doing well, especially if they are doing an exceptional job serving the most neediest students?”
    We can’t allow one or two examples of poor charters to dictate our opinions of the movement. If we do, it’s fair to say that the numerous failing traditional district schools around the nation speak for the efficacy of the traditional system. I choose not to take it that far and to not allow the failure of a select few dictate my overall belief system. Hence, I repeat, I am an advocate of high performing schools, especially those that are serving the students and families that are most in need.

    Former Charter School Parent: I am sorry that you had a negative experience at that school. However, there is no way that the school district should not have allowed you to re-enroll your children at their schools. I am surprised as I have never seen that before in my many years in education. Usually, most districts welcome back those dissatisfied with their charter experience, strictly for funding purposes.
    I would like to share with you some numbers however. My most recent position as a charter school principal paid me 75,000/year plus benefits. All the principals in my district made well over 100K plus benefits. I was offered a position as an assistant principal in another large urban district 2 years ago at a salary of 98,000 plus benefits. Which admins are really about the money? Do your homework on admin salaries and you will find that charters tend to be much lower. The reason why these jobs are appealing however is that you get to work with an excellent staff (that YOU choose) that is mission aligned and you have the autonomy to create real change.

    Thanks to all on here for the discussion

  8. Thanks to all that commented here. Look for a more in-depth and complete look at the charter schools debate in these pages this spring!

    Bridget Huber

  9. Julietsf@mac.com

    My children have had both good and bad public school experiences in San Francisco. However, if my son wasn’t in the charter high school he currently attends, with the cost of private schools and the public high school options we were offered, we would have seriously considered leaving the city. I’m incredibly grateful this school exists and is offering children of every income level a first-class education. It should be used as a model for public schools, instead of as some sort of threat.

  10. julie

    My children have had both positive and negative experiences in San Francisco public schools. However, if my son hadn’t gotten into Gateway (a charter high school), with the prices of private schools and the choices we were offered for public schools, we would most likely have moved out of the city. This school offers children of every income level a first-class education and should be used as a model for public education, not a threat.

  11. Parent

    Actually, Julie, SFUSD has many really great high schools. Better information would have reassured you. If you need more information in your kids’ future educational odyssey, please contact Parents for Public Schools-SF, http://www.ppssf.org. You’ll be happily surprised! Gateway, by the way, ranks No. 8 from the top of SFUSD’s high schools, and it’s the highest-achieving of the charter high schools. It’s the only one that isn’t struggling badly. (There are megabucks behind charter school PR, so this isn’t what you’ll hear from their mouthpieces and those who believe them unquestioningly.)

  12. Parent

    Here’s some information on who’s behind this charter proposal:
    This charter is being proposed by the Boston organization Building Excellent
    Schools (BES). One of the six BES board members, Steven F. Wilson, was the
    founder and CEO of Boston-based Advantage Schools. Advantage was a for-profit
    charter operator that collapsed after a Boston Globe investigation revealed its
    troubles in 2001 — here is the expose:

    http://www.commondreams.org/headlines01/0513-02.htm

    “… while promising to bring higher standards and sharper management of
    taxpayer dollars, Advantage has misled parents about teacher qualifications,
    failed to consistently boost scores on high-stakes state tests, and engaged in
    financial practices that have prompted censure by at least two states, the Globe
    has found.

    “A sampling: At Chicago’s Octavio Paz Charter School, 30 of the 33 teachers
    Advantage hired had only substitute certificates, according to a city official.
    At Jersey City’s Golden Door Charter School, class sizes were a third larger
    than advertised, and Advantage ended up with a $600,000 deficit. And at Albany’s
    New Covenant Charter School, more than 90 percent of the students failed New
    York State’s reading test.

    “Schools in four cities – Malden, Chicago, Albany, and Rocky Mount, N.C. – have
    ended their relationships with the four-year-old company. And at least another
    three of the 19 charter schools Advantage has started have been plagued with
    problems.

    “Advantage has used its conservative political connections to drum up business
    in Massachusetts and nationwide. Cofounder Steven Wilson, a former aide to
    Governor William F. Weld, tapped state Board of Education member Abigail
    Thernstrom to serve on Advantage’s academic advisory board.”

    To us SFUSD old-timers, Advantage was also of interest because it was the last
    known employer of our former Superintendent Bill Rojas.

    The BES Board of Directors:

    http://buildingexcellentschools.org/about/board-directors/

  13. Caroline

    Have you reported on the fact that the SFUSD Board of Ed rejected this charter application? The mainstream press is infamous for not following through on its reports in cases like this, but I hope Mission Loc@l is trying to be more thorough. As noted, the charter proposal was being made by outsiders from Boston with a history of running a shoddy and unsuccessful for-profit charter operation, so it’s a good thing for our San Francisco students that these con artists weren’t allowed to get a foot in our door! (And just a reminder — ask tougher questions from the beginning next time!)

  14. Educator

    The Mission Prep charter was indeed rejected by SFUSD, but it will likely be approved on state appeal.
    Caroline, if you review the website for Building Excellent Schools, you will see they are NOT a management organization. They support individuals who are interested in starting school by providing training and support for their efforts. If you google any of the schools that have been founded by fellows from the organization, you will find that each individual school has a different board of directors, meaning they are locally controlled. Mission Prep’s board is comprised of individuals who all live and work in San Francisco and there is no mention of Steven F. Wilson. Although I cannot confirm it, I would be willing to bet that Mission Prep has its own non-profit status, not at all linked with building excellent schools. Finally, review the data of some of the schools listed on the website, in particular, the schools that have been open for a long time. It is quite good and far from your claim of “shoddy and unsuccessful”.

  15. CarolineSF

    Building Excellent Schools (BES) is indeed a Boston-based charter school operator that is behind the proposal for Mission Prep, should it remain alive. BES has dropped Mission Prep from the schools listed by name on its website, but still shows Mission Prep on a map of its schools.

    Stven F. Wilson, backer of the for-profit Advantage Schools, which collapsed in failure and disgrace some years ago, is a member of the BES board.

    I’m quite willing to bet that the local individuals on the Mission Prep board are naive newcomers with no expertise in education who had no idea what questions to ask and who were recruited to put local faces on this proposal. If that’s not the case, I’m eager to hear from them directly in this comments section.

    The question remains open: Why is a charter operator from Boston trying to ram a charter school into San Francisco against the will of our elected Board of Education? Mission Loc@l, don’t you owe it to us to follow up on this story, especially after such kind and gentle initial coverage? Why am I breaking the news in your comments section about who’s behind this school? Sorry to be tough on you, but if new media is to dig deeper and ask tougher questions than old media, that’s what you need to do, not accept self-serving claims at face value.

  16. CarolineSF

    …And it is quite true that this dubious proposal will likely be approved by the California state Board of Education, which Gov. Schwarzenegger has packed with advocates of the charter school industry. The state BOE mostly serves as a charter lobbying organization. Is the state BOE still handing out $450K grants to pretty much anyone who wants to try to start a charter school, no questions asked? Did Mission Prep’s would-be operators get one of those grants? Seems like our public schools could use that money.

  17. CarolineSF

    Mission Loc@l, if you ever follow up on this story, please pin down: Who EXACTLY is behind this proposed school? What are the interests and background in education of the SF board members — are they token figureheads or activists genuinely involved in education? What exactly is the degree of involvement and role of this Boston charter school outfit, with its board member tainted by the failure of a for-profit charter school chain that he founded and ran? What are the records of the other charter schools this operator is running elsewhere in the nation (not taking the charter operator’s word for it, needless to say).These and more really, seriously tough questions need to be asked in this kind of news coverage. Charter school proposals are especially suspect because of their effort to tap into public education funding for their private schemes, and the fact that charter schools get basically no oversight or regulation once they do get off the ground — especially state-chartered operations, as this one will be if the would-be operators continue to pursue approval.

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