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The San Diego Cooperative Charter School is in crisis. The future of 180 kids at one campus and even the entire institution – known for its progressive, child-centered learning model – are uncertain.
The co-op school has two locations, one in Mountain View and another much bigger campus in Linda Vista.
Leadership turmoil and reports of persistent safety concerns on the Mountain View campus led families to unenroll their children in droves since the end of last school year. The campus has lost more than a third of its students and now money problems are rippling out through the entire organization.
School leaders held an emergency meeting Wednesday, which was attended by dozens of frustrated parents who shouted down board members throughout the evening.
The Mountain View campus could be abruptly closed as early as December, leaving some 180 children without a school. San Diego Unified School District may also take over the Mountain View campus this summer and turn it into a “pilot” school. (This would give the school more freedom to use special curriculums and operate outside traditional school district rules.)
The 11 board members who oversee the school are set to make a decision about the future of the Mountain View campus on Wednesday. The Linda Vista campus is at capacity. So in the event of a closure, it’s unlikely many – or even any – of the Mountain View students could switch over to the Linda Vista location.
“Hard truths need to be confronted and decisions about the future need to be made,” said board president Mollie Shannon. “I know there are hard feelings among many in this room. Relationships have been damaged. Things have been said to and about people that have caused pain and hurt.”
Board members framed the decision before them not unlike an amputation. Should they shut down one campus in order to save the other 450-plus students at their Linda Vista location?
The problems for the school started when it merged the Linda Vista campus and Mountain View campus into a single school at the beginning of last school year. The Mountain View campus was previously known as the San Diego Cooperative Charter School 2. It had its own separate board members and budget. But the school was performing below average on state tests and in danger of being shut down.
Rather than let School 2 close, board members came up with a plan to roll the two schools into one.
The organization’s executive director, Tom Pellegrino, came up with a plan to improve test scores at the Mountain View campus. But many families at Mountain View ultimately became unhappy with his leadership.
The school’s two co-principals left the organization at the end of last school year.
Amid this turmoil, roughly 50 of the school’s 270 students pulled out of Mountain View over the summer.
Mountain View students came back to school on Aug. 26. Since then, the school has experienced multiple safety and behavioral incidents on campus, according to board members and parents. The school lost another 30-plus students, bringing total enrollment to around 184.
A group of parents banded together to oppose some of the board’s decisions, as well as Pellegrino’s leadership. Amid the dysfunction, Pellegrino resigned. His official last day on the job was Wednesday.
The steep drop in enrollment in Mountain View is costing the school hundreds of thousands of dollars, since the amount of money a school receives is directly tied to how many students show up each day.
If student enrollment at Mountain View stays roughly the same, the campus would run a deficit of $600,000. The co-op’s other, bigger campus at Linda Vista is set to have a surplus that could cover some of Mountain View’s deficit. But if Mountain View stays open, the entire organization’s reserve money will be brought down to critically low levels.
The school would have enough money to cover roughly three pay periods in that scenario, said a representative from the company CharterWise who presented at Wednesday’s board meeting. CharterWise helps manage the school’s finances.
The conflict over whether to close the school has elicited harsh responses among parents.
One Linda Vista campus parent suggested that the Mountain View school should perhaps be closed down in December, not just for budgetary reasons, but because its test scores would be a drag on the better-performing students at Linda Vista.
“It’s test scores as well. It’s not just budget. I see a scenario where if we have low test scores then we don’t have a charter,” the woman said to the crowded auditorium. “They’ll have their pilot school and we won’t have our charter.”
Schools test in the spring. So, if the Mountain View campus closes in December, the Mountain View students’ test scores won’t be rolled in with the Linda Vista campus test scores. If the co-op school ends up with below-average test scores, the San Diego Unified School District could move to shut it down.
San Diego Unified officials specifically cited test scores, for example, when they declined to renew the charter for Thrive, another local charter school.
As it stands, San Diego Unified officials say they want to turn the Mountain View campus into a pilot school. In that scenario, three parties have to come together to agree on an arrangement: San Diego Unified’s board members, the San Diego teacher’s union and the group of families who are advocating for the school to become a pilot.
The pilot school could open as early as next July, Richard Barrera, a San Diego Unified board member, told the crowd.
Barrera’s own children previously attended San Diego Cooperative Charter School. In his vision, the new pilot school would stick to the founding principles of the co-op school, he told the crowd.
The co-op’s board members will now have to decide what happens to the 184 children still attending the Mountain View campus. If the school closes, the children could potentially end up dispersed throughout the city. If a pilot school reopens in its place, San Diego Unified officials would make every effort to help ensure that students would be able to come back, Barrera said.
Barrera said the district would also strive to hire back the teachers and school workers who could lose their jobs.
“I appreciate that a tough decision has to be made. But this is all happening in the wake of a disaster that could have been prevented,” said Sonia Bouchard, a Mountain View teacher who spoke at the meeting. “Responsibility needs to be taken for that. I want a pilot school too, yes. But I didn’t want it to come out of the splintering of all of us.”