San Diego Unified staffers are advising the school board to turn down a plan to expand a City Heights charter school into a high school, arguing that it will encourage racial isolation because its student body consists largely of African-American students of Somali descent.

The existing school, Iftin Charter School, was founded in 2006 by parents, many of them Somali refugees unhappy with the quality of the public schools. The K-8 school has shown some impressive gains in test scores, leading the charter to seek a high school to expand on its success. Its petition for the school outlines its instructional strategies and philosophy in detail, including a focus on social justice.

But the school district is balking at the idea of expanding Iftin. District staff has recommended that the school board deny the petition for a high school because its largely Somali student population is unlikely to reflect the demographics of San Diego Unified. Their report reads:

Although the Iftin K-8 charter contained assurances that its student population demographics would match that of the District, to date the Iftin K-8 student population is heavily imbalanced with 93 percent of its students being African American, apparently all of Somali descent. This figure is severely disproportionate to the City Heights figure of 14% African American, and a District wide figure of 13.2% African American. Despite having been in existence for approximately four years, the Iftin K-8 charter school has not achieved the student racial demographics required by law.

Iftin is not the first charter school to face scrutiny for its demographics: High Tech High has been criticized in the past for having a smaller percentage of Latino and low-income students than the San Diego Unified average. Its directors have argued that they are striving to diversify and that they want to be representative of San Diego schools as a whole — not just San Diego Unified, which tends to skew poorer than the city as a whole.

The diversity debate also poses some larger questions to the school board, which has pushed for more neighborhood schooling and less busing. If neighborhoods or communities are racially isolated, how can the school district maintain diversity without having to nudge someone to get on the bus? And how strict of a diversity standard can charters be held to when there are district schools that are also racially imbalanced? State data show that Jerabek Elementary is 74 percent white and Burbank Elementary is 97 percent Latino, for instance.

The question of whether to allow Iftin to expand will go before the school board on Tuesday. I’ve put in a call to the California Charter Schools Association to talk more about the issue.


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