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It was never Nicole Tempel Assisi’s goal to pick a fight with San Diego Unified. But if the district wanted to tussle, Assisi wasn’t about to back down, either.

Assisi wanted to open a charter school where she could put into practice what she’d picked up working at High Tech High in its early years, and serving as a founding principal at three Los Angeles charter schools.

San Diego Unified staff vetted and greenlighted the school’s charter petition, but in January, school board members bucked their own staff’s recommendation and shot down Assisi’s school.

Assisi appealed to the county, then the state, eventually getting approval from the state Board of Education. In the process, she successfully fended jabs from the same district that once supported it.

Assisi broke open important discussions along the way, like how the district will deal now that it thinks charter schools are nearing a saturation point.

This year, we saw San Diego Unified raise the bar on which schools will have access to bond money, though charter schools were promised a piece of the pie in 2012.

Now in its first school year, Thrive – the school Assisi opened – is off to a running start. Parents are lining up to enroll their kids. It even landed on a list of 100 Schools Worth Visiting as ranked by Getting Smart, on online education publication.

Back in February, before Thrive’s charter petition was approved, Assisi wondered whether she and her staff were being used as a sacrificial lamb by San Diego Unified – a sudden and arbitrary way to slow the growth of charter schools within the district.

If that’s an accurate assessment, one thing’s for sure: They messed with the wrong lamb.

This is part of our Voice of the Year package, profiling the people who drove the biggest conversations in San Diego this year. Check out the next profile, Ian Campbell: The Voice of Our Vulnerable Arts Scene.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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