Ensuring Equitable Access to All Public Schools

Last month, the ACLU and Public Advocates released an important report identifying ways that California charter schools provide limited access for some families. Unequal Access: How Some California Charter Schools Illegally Restrict Enrollment reviewed public websites and documents to find issues at 253 of California’s 1,200 charter public schools in five key areas.

Charter schools are public schools, and by law and intent are open to all young people. Our state’s education code clearly states that charter public schools should not have policies and practices that impede a child or his/her family from attending. Unfortunately, this is not always true.

Charter public schools have increased autonomies that were designed to allow for innovation in staffing, budgeting, programs, instruction, and schedules. With these freedoms comes tremendous responsibility to monitor policies and practices, as well as a profound legal and moral duty to serve all youth. As a community, we must work toward and expect excellence from all of our district-run and charter public schools to support a coherent public education system that meets the needs of all students.

Charter Schools in West Contra Costa

As of September 8, 2016, only two West Contra Costa schools (Benito Juarez Elementary and John Henry High School) are listed as having “Requirements that Discourage Undocumented Students” and “Pre-Enrollment interview or Essay Requirements”

Both of these schools are managed by Amethod Public Schools. Benito Juarez Elementary serves 460 students grades TK-5 and John Henry High serves 206 students grades 9-11 (12th grade coming in 2017-2018).

We reached out to Amethod and spoke with Pete Cordero, Chief Operating Officer, who shared that while Amethod has not formally responded to the ACLU regarding the report’s findings, they have, however, audited their website and enrollment materials.

Amethod discovered that there was a misunderstanding between the application and the matriculation packets, which are submitted after the one-page application is submitted and a space is secured. Cordero reported that they have clarified the application process by only including the initial one-page form on the website and in person.

He shared that families generally come straight to the office for applications and receive accurate and clear information there. Amethod was not yet clear on the finding that they discourage undocumented students since the one-page application only asks for name and contact information, but will clarify that as well. He looks forward to partnering with the ACLU to better understand and clear up all areas.

Leadership Public Schools (LPS) was also initially on the list. Louise Waters, Superintendent of Leadership Public Schools, shared that LPS had addressed all of the identified issues within 24 hours of the report being released. Since the publication of the report, Leadership Public Schools has been removed from the list. She welcomed the report and said that it came at a time when they were launching a new website, causing them to make sure that all information on the new site was up to date. She shared that none of the issues identified reflected the actual current practices of LPS. Because school sites primarily use hard copy materials for parents, out of date web materials had not been updated. Schools were not being fully aware of how certain past practices or wording of these practices could be interpreted in a discriminatory way.

Our key takeaways and recommendations:

Open enrollment and equal access are fundamental principles for public education. Any and all violations must be fixed immediately. There is no excuse for any policies or practices to be in place that discourage or prevent a family from accessing a public school. In communicating with charter operators it seems that clarity of application processes and on-going monitoring of online materials is key. The tension, however, is that this report is only based on materials schools have publicly posted. We must also find ways to monitor other practices, informal or undocumented, that may have the same negative impact of limiting school options for students and families.

Transparency and information are essential. We need more reports like these that provide data and information. Too often the discussion of charters and other issues are fueled by anecdotal information and assumptions. We appreciate ACLU and Public Advocates’ work on this report, and will work at GO to continue to shine light on important issues like these through our periodic reports and on-going communications.

Cooperation is essential. We are all — educators and community leaders — working to ensure our children have equitable access to high quality opportunities. In this current moment for West Contra Costa public schools — with our new Superintendent and new board members coming in January — we look forward to supporting cooperation among all schools and stakeholders working to ensure that each of our students succeeds.

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