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.