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Choosing a Charter Future for Downtown

As published in the San Diego Daily Transcript

by Vince Vasquez

Thursday, April 30, 2009

As we approach National Charter Schools Week, it’s important to reflect upon our region’s experience with charter classrooms. With stronger community leadership, charter schools may be part of an innovative solution to our growing needs in downtown San Diego.

Charter schools are similar to standard tuition-free public schools, but through state law, education administrators have greater powers to hire and fire employees, establish student policies and curriculum, set school hours, and manage operating costs. Studies have consistently shown that this flexibility has been instrumental in increasing accountability, reducing bureaucracy and fostering innovation throughout the United States. It’s no wonder that open-minded San Diegans are strong supporters of charter schools; nearly 1 out of 10 charter schools in California operate in our county. Two notable examples have made a positive impact in the lives of thousands of children in our region.

The Preuss School, a middle and high school chartered with the San Diego Unified School District and founded in 1999, has excelled at increasing scholastic achievement for low-income students whose parents are not college graduates. In less than ten years, Preuss (which has a diverse student body that is 59% Latino) has earned rankings among the top ten public high schools in the nation. A living testament to the power of community support, Preuss’s $14 million campus, which is located on the grounds of the University of California – San Diego, was paid entirely by philanthropists and charitable foundations.

High Tech High, which opened its doors one year after Preuss, was the culmination of strategic sessions between business and civic leaders at the Economic Development Corporation’s Partnership for a New Economy. Identifying the need for stronger local workforce development in the high-tech and life sciences industries, the school was created with a unique project-based learning philosophy, where independent work is encouraged, and professional internships are required. High Tech High’s popular academic model has since been expanded to 2,500 students at eight schools, including a middle school and high schools in Chula Vista and North County.

For all of the success stories we hear with charter schools, there are hundreds that have failed to make the grade. Charters can be revoked if administrators are unable to meet standards for student achievement, business management or other stipulations in their legal contract with the government – leaving parents and children in limbo. According to a recent study by the Center for Education Reform, of the 5,235 charter schools opened in the United States since 1992, one out of eight schools (12.5%) have closed down, mostly due to financial issues (41%) or mismanagement (27%). Critics also complain that the disadvantaged children and parents most at need for innovative classrooms usually aren’t aware of opportunities for charter school enrollment, and as a result, charters are “skimming the cream” of the population. Still, leaders have pressed forth to use charter schools to not only increase academic achievement, but also fulfill important needs in the community.

Consider the case of former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who used his political capital and key relationships to advance a new performing arts school for Oakland children, to organically cultivate strong local talent, as well as dispel the sullied reputation of downtown public schools that impeded efforts to attract families to move into the urban core. First housed in the basement of the Alice Arts Center in 2002, and later relocated to the historic Fox Theatre, The Oakland School for the Arts (OSA) is a middle and high school that has become one of the highest academically performing schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. Using charter school laws that allow for curriculum and admissions flexibility, OSA has a grade-blind admissions process that requires auditions of all prospective students, and provides intense three-year arts instruction in areas such as dance, instrumental music, and arts management.

San Diego civic leaders should consider setting a goal to build a world-class performing arts public school, to foster local artistic talent, and to provide an innovative educational institution to benefit the more than 37,000 additional people who will fill into downtown neighborhoods over the next two decades. Beginning small with a growing middle school would be prudent. One location for such a school could be in the East Village neighborhood, which has worked hard to build an identity as San Diego’s arts district with inviting galleries, artist lofts, and the New School for Architecture & Design. Why not explore new redevelopment partnerships with downtown’s existing performance facilities, such as the exquisite Balboa Theatre, which reopened in 2008 after more than $26 million in renovations? This 1,339 seat live-performance facility would be a fitting classroom for aspiring San Diego thespians. Can instructional space be incorporated into Gerding Edlen’s proposed renovation of the Civic Theatre, a component of its pending redevelopment of the San Diego Civic Center Complex?

Data suggests that there is public support to open a charter arts school in San Diego’s downtown area. According to a survey of 92101 zip code residents (Centre City neighborhoods, from Little Italy to East Village) conducted in 2008 by Competitive Edge Research & Communication (CERC), about 2/3 of school age children are attending schools outside of downtown. Parents aren’t convinced that existing downtown schools fulfill their needs – 39% of respondents stated that they believed 92101 schools were worse than surrounding schools, and 37% stated they didn’t have enough experience with local schools to make a comparison. However, with 77% of survey respondents stating that they were “somewhat” or “much more” inclined to send their children to a downtown school that emphasized visual and performing arts, a broader public discussion on the character of future downtown schools deserves merit.

San Diego’s philanthropists and civic leaders have proven their mettle and commitment to scholastic achievement. This Charter Schools Week, residents throughout our region should consider what the next great charter school we want to commit ourselves to, for the betterment of our children and our community.