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A new charter school is angling to serve downtown families, filling a vacuum bemoaned by downtown boosters and residents who say they have few options for local schools.

The proposed school, Urban Discovery Academy, was the brainchild of those residents, including a number of parents from a closed private school, Harborside, which was incorporated into Washington Elementary as a program this fall. Another charter school, the Museum School, was intended to relocate downtown from Bankers Hill, but was not ultimately allocated space it had expected in the new Children’s Museum. It will remain in Bankers Hill.

“Essentially, the only option is the one public school that doesn’t meet the needs of all downtown residents,” said MaeLin Levine, the lead petitioner on the charter, who added that 110 parents had already signed up expressing interest in the school.

Levine is the mother of a Harborside student who attended the private school before it was closed, then resurrected as a program at Washington. The merger has been controversial at the school, where Washington and Harborside parents have clashed over resources, program differences and how distinct the Harborside classes are from their Washington counterparts.

Months later, the furor hasn’t abated, with Harborside parents threatening to pull their children from the school if alleged bullying incidents aren’t adequately addressed by Washington principal Nestor Suarez. Levine said she felt the Harborside program had been effectively eliminated.

Charter schools are independently run schools that use public funds, and are authorized and monitored by school districts. San Diego Unified competes with charter schools for student enrollment, which provides state funding to schools. Charters are not bound by the same rules that govern district-run schools, and are thus free to hire their own teachers or opt out of employee union contracts, if they choose.

What would make Urban Discovery Academy different? Levine cited small class sizes, learning through projects, and highly educated teachers with master’s degrees. The school would begin as a K-6 school with roughly 100 students, and eventually expand into a K-12, she said.

Check out a presentation about Urban Discovery Academy and its vision here.

The parents have completed a charter petition; a decision will ultimately come from the school board.

EMILY ALPERT

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