Heritage Charters, Then and Now: Same Old Story

Following is a letter written to the Escondido Union School Board prior to the vote approving the charter for Heritage Digital Charter School. The school is now occupying space in a former branch library. Both the closure of the library and the approval of the charter were sources of division and controversy in the community. Despite assuring the board and the community they would work to better serve the community in which they are located, little has changed.

June 7, 2013

Dear Escondido Unified School District Board Member:

We have deep concerns about two requests made to the Escondido Unified School Board (EUSD) regarding the renewal of the Heritage K-8 Charter and a petition for a Heritage Digital Middle School. We note that the Heritage Digital School is already expanding into their newly leased facility at East Valley Community Center without approval of the EUSD Board for a new charter school.

California Charter law requires that both requests should be considered new petitions.  The renewal constitutes a material revision to the initial granted charter as it includes one or more additional sites from the original petition.  CA Ed. Code 47605 (A)(4).

Also, we believe the Heritage K-8 Charter has not complied with their original memorandum of understanding when they affirmed that they would:

“… achieve a racial and ethnic balance that is reflective of the general population residing within the territorial jurisdiction of the school district to which the charter petition is submitted” (emphasis added.) CA Code 47605 (b)(G).

The intent of the Legislature in enacting the Charter School Act of 1992 was to increase learning opportunities for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving and provide vigorous competition within the public schools. CA Ed. Code 47601(b) and (g).

In 2006 when Mr. Dennis Snyder filed a petition for his Heritage K-8 Charter School, he affirmed that he would serve a demographic population reflective of the general population of Escondido.  The general population is reflected in 15 out of 17 K-8 schools in Escondido.  These 15 schools have a substantial population of English Learners (EL) and disadvantaged students.  Central School has 75.6% EL, and 94.8% disadvantaged; Conway has 59.1% EL and 78.6% disadvantaged; Farr has 81.% El and 93.5% disadvantaged; Glen View 61.7% EL and 81.1% disadvantaged; Felicita 79% EL and 95.5% disadvantaged; Juniper has 67.9% EL and 88% disadvantaged; Lincoln has 80% EL and 96.8% disadvantaged; North Broadway 29.6% EL and 52% disadvantaged; Oakhill 68.3% EL and 85.9% disadvantaged; Pioneer 81% EL and 93.7% disadvantaged; Rock Springs 56% EL and 77.1% disadvantaged; Rose School 72.2% EL and 91.1% disadvantaged.  In contrast to the general population of these other schools, Heritage has 1.6 % EL and 30.7% disadvantaged students. We don’t know how Mr. Snyder has identified those students who are disadvantaged, because we believe that the charter school has no free or reduced lunch services as do all the other public schools.

In addition, the Heritage school serves a student population with a much larger percentage of white students than that in Escondido’s non-charter schools.  We are deeply troubled that the Heritage K-8 Charter School has favored students who have no English language issues and are more affluent than the general population of Escondido.  At the same time that the charter school is educating a less challenged student body, the charter school is comparing their students with students in elementary schools vastly different from theirs.

The Heritage K-8 Charter has accepted students from Ramona, Bonsall and Valley Center.  The school can legally accept those students but the intent of the charter law is affronted.  It is particularly egregious that the leadership in this city has seen fit to evict a large and successful program, the Escondido Education Compact.  This program was  specifically created to meet the needs of at-risk youth who are English Learners, socially disadvantaged, and low achieving students of Escondido. The program is being  replaced with a charter school that essentially has the demographics of a private school.  The wisdom of this must be questioned if the spirit and intent of the charter law is kept in mind—to increase the opportunities for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving.

It is also important to remember that the law intends for charter schools to provide a vigorous competition with public schools. How can public schools compete when they must educate every student and charters get to cherry pick who they educate?  You are the last and best chance to correct this lack of inequity.

Mr. Snyder will argue that the Heritage K-8 Charter School has accepted all student applicants and that students who are English Learners and disadvantaged are simply not applying to his school.  The EUSD Board should investigate and evaluate whether the Heritage K-8 Charter School has taken any steps to increase its English Learner and disadvantaged student numbers.  For example, has the school designed a plan to attract academically low achieving, English Learners, or disadvantaged students? Has the school invited community members to school tours conducted in both English and Spanish? Have they had evening meetings inviting targeted neighborhoods with translation services? Does it have a school website that is translated for non-English speakers? Does it have school applications that can be filled out and returned online?  Instead, the recent Heritage K-8 Charter school website, advised parents that if they lived in Escondido, they needed two forms of “residency” proof.  This wording could be misconstrued to required documentation of immigration status and not verification of address.

Another particularly troubling issue is the lack of written, formal documentation by the Superintendent’s office of these deficiencies.  There appears nothing which would indicate non-compliance with Mr. Snyder’s initial charter petition and there are no notices of violation.  The informal process which apparently has taken place with Mr. Snyder has not resulted in a good and fair outcome for low-achieving students.

Mr. Snyder newest petition for a digital charter middle school asserts that the school will serve a population reflective of the demographics of Escondido.  We urge the EUSD Board to ask Mr. Snyder what he will specifically do that will net a different result from his prior petitions, affirmations and years of non-compliance.

Also, we urge that Mr. Snyder not be given a five year renewal.  We believe that at very best, a six month renewal would be sufficient to monitor and assess the steps Mr. Snyder has taken to achieve parity with other schools.

The charter law requires that a petition meet 16 elements for the sponsoring district’s permission to open a charter school and a yearly monitoring to see that every requirement is met.  For all of the reasons stated above, we feel strongly that the members of the EUSD Board should deny both the current requests by the Escondido Charter School District or delay approval until a plan for compliance is completed. After consulting with the San Diego County Department of Education and the California Department of Education, we believe these are serious and legitimate concerns.  We hope the solution can be found at the local level.

Thank you for your time and thoughtful consideration.

Tania L. Bowman, Esq.                                           John J. Ward

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