Tuesday, April 12, 2005 | This is part two in a four-part series. Read part one.

Charter schools have seen explosive growth in the past decade and offer a new concept in public education, one developed around a business model that puts an on-site governing board of directors in charge of all aspects of the school – from pedagogical decisions and salary schedules to buying pencils and cleaning toilets.

To learn how to start a charter school and make it successful, more and more educators are turning to San Diego for guidance, according to Gary Larson, vice president of communications for the California Charter Schools Association.

Larson specifically commended San Diego Unified School District’s Office of School Choice, headed by Brian Bennett, for its pioneering efforts, saying the department has done “tremendously well.”

San Diego “is the first school district in the state that has focused on letting parents know they have access to a diverse array of school choices,” Larson said. “San Diego is nirvana for public school choice. There are so many wonderful examples of diverse options.”

Larson applauded SDUSD not just for creating a distinct department devoted to school choice that helps parents understand their options, but also for “sharing its best practices with the broader public school system so all students can benefit.” Larson said this is a key tenet of the charter law – to disseminate successful charter ideas to other schools so all schools can adopt more innovative learning techniques and realize improvement.

Other charter groups in California and the nation regard San Diego as a prime example of charter school excellence and a place where others come to learn, Larson said. Officials from the San Francisco Unified School District recently visited the San Diego office, and Bennett said the National Association of Charter School Authorizers has recognized San Diego as a model authorizer (an agency, usually a school board, that approves charter applications and monitors school progress).

A rocky start

San Diego has not always received such accolades. In 2002, the California Bureau of State Audits gave SDUSD – the second largest school district in the state and eighth largest in the country – a failing grade for inadequate oversight of charter schools.

Taking the criticism to heart, SDUSD created a separate department in late 2003, the Office of School Choice, to oversee all schooling options for parents – charters as well as an array of other choices like magnet schools and a voluntary ethnic enrollment program.

Previously a district consultant, Bennett became director of the OSC, which provides charters with start-up assistance, guidance, resources and oversight to ensure compliance. He works with just one other employee, making the OSC one of the leanest departments in the district. “Charters were designed to be non-bureaucratic, so people felt the department should be too,” he said.

Bennett has rejected charter requests, usually because the appeal is not viable or is not in compliance with the law. “Our job is to make charters successful,” he said.

Once a charter is approved by the school board, Bennett helps organizers establish their policies and goals, and conducts an exhaustive audit of the site the first year, with regular visits periodically to monitor progress. If there is limited academic improvement, the school can be shut down.

In the 17 months Bennett’s been on board, supporters say he has made a dramatic difference by making charters understandable, accessible and viable.

Bennett’s success, according to followers of the movement, relies in large part on groundwork laid and support given by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Business Roundtable for Education, which in 1994 established the San Diego Charter School Consortium to provide training, networking and resource sharing for charter school organizers.

The OSC has the support of SDUSD superintendent Alan Bersin, who champions the cause as a way to break the cycle of high teacher turnover in the lowest performing schools. And the San Diego County Board of Education also plays a role in the county’s charter success, by coordinating regular informational and training meetings for charter school business officers.

Proliferation of charter schools

Through the combined efforts of education, business, and civic leaders, San Diego has become a mecca of charter school activity. San Diego County has one out of every 10 charter schools in the state – and the largest concentration of charter schools in the country, according to Ginger Hovenic, head of the Business Roundtable.

SDUSD – which has about 200 schools and 136,000 students – had 20 charter schools last year, 24 now, and could have as many as 38 next year if enough facilities can be found to house them all, Bennett said. Ten thousand SDUSD students are currently enrolled in charter schools, and that number could climb to 17,000 next year.

“San Diego Unified has more charters as a percent of enrollment than any other district in the state, including L.A.,” Bennett said.

Chula Vista is second in the county with six charters, Oceanside and Escondido each have three, whereas 19 other school districts in the county each have one or two – making a total of 55 charters in San Diego County.

Larson singled out a number of San Diego County high schools for high academic performance, including the Preuss School at UCSD, High Tech High near Lindbergh Field, and River Valley High in Lakeside – all of which, Larson said, had some of the top test scores in the county, even surpassing some traditional academic giants like La Jolla High, Coronado High and San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas.

Charter schools can serve any combination of kindergarten through 12th grades. Some specialize in music, the arts, science or technology. Some only accept low-income students whose parents never attended college, and some only serve specific neighborhoods. But all charters, regardless of their specialized focus, provide intense coursework in basic reading, writing and math.

Because charters are revoked if steady academic gains are not realized, charters must do more than provide school choice – they must ultimately guarantee improved learning. Achieving that balance between freedom and accountability is the key to charter success, Bennett said.

Tomorrow, Part Three: A look at Escondido Charter High School, and the competitive spirit.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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