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Monday, Dec. 10, 2007 | Baye Kes-Ba-Me-Ra is unimpressed by the public school system — a system he’s now begrudgingly part of.

Every Friday, he teaches students African rituals at Yodit, an Afrocentric school that once fought against San Diego Unified School District. Just a year ago, it was a charter school named Fanno Academy, where kids learned Amharic and yoga along with arithmetic. Two years ago, Fanno sued the district, claiming the district denied it a building, and took a settlement to move into an empty school in Chollas View.

Uncharted Territory

  • The Issue: San Diego Unified has folded three closed charters and one bankrupt private school into the public schools as programs over the past year.
  • What It Means: The unusual schools-within-schools boosted public school enrollment and allowed unique programs to survive, but raised questions among parents and teachers about equity.
  • The Bigger Picture: School staff want a policy to cover the consolidations, indicating that San Diego Unified expects more such mergers in the future.

Now, starved for students, the former charter has folded back into the public school system, renamed itself Yodit, and is supervised by Oak Park Elementary principal Shirley Wilson, who divides her time between Yodit and Oak Park.

Merging was Yodit’s choice, Kes-Ba-Me-Ra said, but it wasn’t made happily. Staff says the school district doesn’t support Yodit’s distinctive, African-based curriculum, and hasn’t promoted it to parents. Two blocks away at Chollas-Mead Elementary, a secretary seemed puzzled when asked for directions to Yodit or Fanno.

“It’s the only option we had for survival,” said Kes-Ba-Me-Ra, a school volunteer. He shook his dreadlocked beard. “Now, we’ve become a curiosity. It’s crippled my work. … If you starve a person long enough, you’ll kill them.”

San Diego schools have capitalized on charter closures, importing fizzled charters and one private school into public schools as special programs this year. Four such mergers have rescued unique programs from extinction and funneled students back into public schools, refilling their budgets with attendance money.

But mergers are a brave new world for San Diego schools — and not everyone sees them as positive. Parents and teachers on both sides of the mergers complain about inequities and unmet expectations. Yodit is only one example of the phenomenon, now tested across the city with wildly differing results.

In Logan Heights, a shrinking elementary school took in City Arts Charter, a tiny school once housed in a church, and rechristened it as the LEAP program, serving kindergarten and first grade. Downtown, parents exploded over the merger of Washington Elementary and Harborside School, a bankrupt private school now operating as a selective program inside Washington. And Carver Elementary sparked controversy last year when it offered in-class prayer time and single-sex classes, trying to accommodate the mostly-Muslim students of the shuttered Mid-City Charter School.

Charter schools are publicly funded, but don’t operate by the same rules as public schools. School districts authorize each school based on a charter, a document that lays out how the school will run. Advocates tout the schools as hotbeds of innovation, free from district bureaucracy. Yodit, for instance, stresses the African value of communal well-being over individual advancement, and celebrates rites of passage; the new Health Sciences High trains future nurses and physicians.

But the schools risk closure if their budgets dip or they can’t find facilities. Nationwide, roughly 10 percent of charter schools shut down, according to the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit that supports school choice.

Yet in San Diego, charters have found life after closure. Whether it’s heaven or hell depends on who you ask.

At Logan, Keeping An Ailing Program Alive

Merging back into the district smarts for some charters, which stake their reputations on outperforming public schools. Yodit, in particular, has a rocky history with the district, and was founded on the premise that traditional schools “culturally cripple” black children. Tension lingers, years after Fanno settled its suit with the district.

“We’re going a long way to be accommodating to (Yodit), a very unique program,” said Kyo Yamashiro, director of the district’s Office of School Choice. “And it’s going to have some growing pains.”

Others welcome the mergers as a lifesaver, allowing ideas born in charter schools to survive — even if the schools don’t.

When City Arts Charter sunk, plagued by low enrollment and pricey building repairs, parents worried that their kids would lose Direct Instruction, a teaching model that stresses clear, definable tasks. Instead, former principal Cheryl Bloom dialed up Yamashiro, and asked if the program had a place in the district. This fall, Logan Elementary hired its three teachers, and incorporated the school as the LEAP program.

“This program is awesome,” said Lehua Pe’a, a homeless mother. Her son loves LEAP so much, Pe’a said, that he urges her to wake at 4:30 a.m. daily to make the earliest possible trek from St. Vincent de Paul shelter to the school. She likes the new location, and the playground, which the church site lacked. “They treat them like individuals, and tailor everything to their individual needs. And he’s excelled, especially considering all the obstacles we’ve faced.”

Teacher Laura Eden drills four LEAP students on the words “moon” and “took,” coaching each child to sound out the words she displays in a binder. Vowels are ornamented with lines that denote whether the letter is short or long. Tasks are short, specific and instantly rewarded. Down the hall, Francisca Cardenas teaches Logan students, taking a different approach. Sixteen students clustered around Cardenas, who pointed to a chart of fish-related words, then urged the kids to conjure up “telling sentences” about krill and humpback whales.

“We grow stronger when we have a variety of approaches to achieve the same goals. … It’s not that either one is better,” said Antonio Villar, principal of Logan Elementary School. “Charter schools are showing us there’s still room in the system for creativity and flexibility, to look at different programs and see how they’re doing.”

Pared-Down Programs Upset Some Parents

Elsewhere in the country, charter school closures have alarmed school districts that worry where to fit displaced kids. In San Diego, where enrollment has declined for years, staffers have aggressively courted those students and their families, swiftly hiring charter teachers and staff. The schools within schools have boosted enrollment, but ruffled feathers among parents and teachers.

Unionized teachers complain that schools have hired charter teachers directly, even as hundreds of public school teachers lost their jobs.

“Area superintendents are doing whatever it takes, by any means necessary, to grab students,” said Camille Zombro, teachers’ union president. Teachers knew little of the deals, she said. “There is no policy right now.”

To some, the deals smack of special treatment. The Harborside program at Washington Elementary alarmed Washington parents, who see Harborside students getting art and dance classes their children don’t. Staff is still trying to iron out the inequities. Yodit, in turn, has raised questions of how principal Wilson is splitting her time, and the use of two Logan staffers as LEAP aides aggravated some Logan teachers, Zombro said.

Nor are all charter parents pleased. To survive, former schools have trimmed staff and supplies. Yodit lost four teachers, including specialists in yoga and Amharic, an Ethiopian language. LEAP will soon lose its former principal, Cheryl Bloom, who now works part-time at the school. Bloom understands the bottom line, she said, and is grateful the school survived at all. Parents are less sympathetic.

“We got the short end of the stick,” said Juanita Russell, whose daughter attends LEAP.

“The consensus is that nobody really wants to go forward next year. We want our program — but we don’t want it at Logan.”

The uproar surprised Delfino Aleman, who helped engineer the mergers. Aleman, one of the district’s five area superintendents, oversaw the mergers at Logan and Washington, and took the brunt of the criticism when parents, teachers, and programs clashed.

“I just find the whole [controversy] really bizarre,” Aleman said. “In most places where you suffer dwindling enrollment, they’d say, ‘That was a heck of an innovative idea.’”

More Mergers Likely On the Horizon

Nationwide, merging charters into public schools isn’t new. Since the 1990s, 120 charters have been absorbed into the public schools, as stand-alone schools, programs within schools, magnets or alternative schools, according to the Center for Education Reform. By merging back into the public system, charters are revitalizing public schools with new ideas and approaches, exactly as charters were intended to do, said Tad Parzen, a consultant and legal counsel to former San Diego Unified Superintendent Alan Bersin.

“Could this be a wonderful shift in the perspective of the institution?” Parzen said. “Can we cut through the red tape sometimes and figure it out later? In my mind, that’s what’s happening. … That’s what charter schools bring to bear on the larger system, much to everyone’s benefit.”

But when charters fail, they fail for a reason, warned Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Education Sector, a school think tank. Schools need to take a hard look at dissolved charters before embracing them as programs, he said. Under-enrollment bedeviled both City Arts and Fanno, for instance, and the private Harborside School went bankrupt, fueling worries that its program is too expensive to support at Washington.

“If it’s something you can work around, take the best aspects of the program and keep it going, that’s great,” Rotherham said. “But generally, these problems go hand in hand. Schools that are struggling to keep their books are struggling to teach kids.”

With more charter closures likely in the future, San Diego Unified is crafting policies to smooth over school mergers. Despite their challenges, schools evidently expect more such marriages to come.

“Yes, we need a policy,” Superintendent Carl Cohn said at a recent school board meeting, responding to trustees’ complaints. “But it shouldn’t be a Katie-bar-the-door policy.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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