Communitas Mess a Lack of Collaboration

Competition between schools, whether charter or traditional public, should never use students as pawns. Unfortunately, eight students who attended Communitas Charter High School last year have greatly suffered by the continuing “war” between competing public entities.

Some background to understand the predicament:

Parents want high quality, results-oriented schools for their children. California has been the nation’s leader in the charter school choice movement for two decades. Oftentimes, Silicon Valley has been at the epicenter.

We can argue the efficacy of the movement, as Diane Ravitch does in her second book on the subject, “The Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and The Danger to America’s Public Schools.” I agree with many of her arguments at a national level. But the fact that 50 percent of San Jose’s public school students score below grade level in math and English/Language Arts is a critical problem that traditional public school systems have not solved. We have no time to get the nation on board with the requisite solutions—that might take a millennium.

The Santa Clara County Board of Education has a reputation for providing a fair and just hearing to the petitions that come before them at the appellate or countywide level. The county Office of Education staff assesses each petition and provides its recommendations to the Board based on state law. The Board members do their own research and determine in a lengthy hearing what to do.

The county Board has approved more charter schools than any of the other 57 boards in the state. There is evidence that the charters approved by our Board are improving student achievement, but the sharing of best practices are not occurring as originally intended by the state charter law.

After a staff recommendation that the Communitas Charter petition met all legal requirements, the county Board unanimously approved it in 2011. It began operation in August 2012.

Forty-seven 9th and 10th grade students attended Communitas at the school’s closure in June 2013. They transferred to different school districts or charter schools for their 10th or 11th grade year. All districts, except for one, found ways to give students partial credit, full transferable (A-G credit), and/or full year credit for all coursework performed at Communitas.

According to Christina Aronen, a parent of one Communitas student, eight students transferring to Campbell Union High School District were not granted any credit for their year at Communitas. Those students were told they would need to complete the entire freshman or sophomore year in an on-line curriculum while doing their current year’s coursework. Many of those parents, when addressing the SCCOE Board on Oct. 2, testified that their children had rich learning experiences in a nurturing climate at Communitas.

The reason given for denying credit by CUHSD was that Communitas, a publicly funded charter high school approved by a public agency, was non-accredited. Communitas was to go through accreditation in 2013-14, therefore it did not conform to district policy for receiving any credits.

It is instructive to know that there are 16 cities in the country that have begun systemic and meaningful collaboration with charters and traditional public schools. Each has been funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, including Los Angeles and Sacramento. Alum Rock and Franklin-McKinley school districts and the charters within their boundaries are on a short list for Gates seed funding.

We have a responsibility to learn from the collaborative work by the 16 cities in the Gates Collaborative Compact work. What happened to students at Communitas in Campbell should never, ever happen again. We can and must do better.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

12 Comments

  1. So its OK for the county board to claim it followed “state law” when approving a charter school that survived barely 10 months but is not OK for the Campbell school district to follow “district policy” to determine if the students should be given credit?  The testimony that “children had rich learning experiences in a nurturing climate at Communitas” does not tell us anything about the quality of the education. The Communitas school was obviously in a state of decline from the start and had little chance of ever being accredited.

  2. The Campbell Union High School District policy regarding transfers from non-accredited schools states that, “When a student transfers from any non-accredited private, public, alternative, home or charter school, academic credit shall be subject to approval by the principal or designee at the enrolling school. Credits transferred from non-accredited schools shall not be accepted.”
    These eight families simply asked to have their local CUHSD high schools look at their student’s academic credit, like the policy above states. All but one family were denied this process. Regardless of how anyone feels about whether or not Communitas would have been accredited, these students were denied due process and advised to make up an entire year of school. District employees should follow district policies and evaluate whether or not the academic credit could be subject to approval or not by the principal or the designee at the enrolling schools.

  3. I disagree that the failure of Communitas is any indication of the quality of education. The county approved a charter document that showed very high standards of academic expectation. Closure simply means the school did not achieve its enrollment goals and was forced to make a fiscal decision. In a small school students receive far more individual attention, and credits are awarded much more on a genuine knowledge of the student’s progress. If “rich learning experiences in a nurturing climate” do not indicate quality, what does? Accreditation itself is not much measure of quality, since just about every public school in the country has it.

    Still, the real issue here is whether the students’ actual achievement is being recognized, or just ignored out of bureaucratic resistance.

  4. In its petition, Communitas had to demonstrate its financial viability and that there was enough enrollment interest (petition signatures)….yet closed doors for those reasons within a year.  Has the County done any introspection of its charter approval process?

  5. My child attended Communitas Charter School and I can tell you first-hand that she received “had a rich learning experiences in a nurturing climate at Communitas” – the first comment by “SteveO” is way off base.  Now, the children who did everything right and successfully completed the year’s courses, are being punished and that is outrageous.

  6. I disgree with SteveO – I can tell you first hand that children received rich learning experiences in a nurturing climate at Communitas. 

    Bottom line:  the kids did everything right.  They worked hard for those units and deserved all the credits.  They should not be punished because of a policy that does not even make sense.

  7. The Santa Clara County Board of Education has a reputation for providing a fair and just hearing to the petitions that come before them at the appellate or countywide level. The county Office of Education staff assesses each petition and provides its recommendations to the Board based on state law. The Board members do their own research and determine in a lengthy hearing what to do.

    Communitas started operation in August 2012 and closed in June 2013.  Why did Communitas close after just one year?

    Mr. DiSalvo, you approved the school.  You are responsible for the situation those kids trying to transfer back to the Campbell Union High School District is in.  You are not being accountable.  You are looking for a political solution instead of an educational one.

  8. I disagree with s randall’s comments about Mr. DiSalvo.

    Mr. DiSalvo is trying to do the right thing for those students affected (within the Campbell Union School District).

    I firmly believe that Mr. DiSalvo is looking for an education solution.

      • My child is not in any way affected by CUHSD’s decision to not grant school credits.  Let’s be clear about that.

        What I do want is for ALL THE CHILDREN affected by the district’s decision, to be granted the credits they truly deserve.

        Thank you.

  9. Mr. DiSalvo and the SCCOE support giving credits to these students. It is the CUHSD that does not. Check the district policy which states that it is up to the principal of the enrolling schools to decide if credits will be counted and then goes on to contradict itself in saying that no credits will be counted. These families can not get the CUHSD to look at their files at all. In the beginning, that was all the 8 families asked for. Why can they not have the same treatment their peers were given when being accepted by other local districts? What could just looking at their records hurt? The comment that Mr. DiSalvo is doing this for politics is correct. He is trying to influence the CUHSD politicians to give these kids a chance. The CUHSD politicians should give these students a fair due process. They could have looked at the records like their policy states and then decide not to take them. It is ridiculous to throw the blame on anyone but the CUHSD for this one.

  10. It is my personal belief that the parents of these students were acting in their child’s (or children’s) best interests and with nothing but the best intentions when they enrolled them in Communitas. I believe that the teachers, board members and parents involved in Communitas were involved for the right reasons and with the best of intentions.

    I also believe that the County Board was doing what they felt was appropriate and certainly was wtihin the law and within their purview when they approved of the Communitas charter.

    Ultimately the Campbell Union School District Board directed staff to recognize the credits of the Communitas students. As a board we wrestled with balancing accreditation related standards and assessments with what ultimately is “fair” to the affected students. As a member of the board during these proceedings my conclusion was that their was more than adequate time remaining in these student’s high school attendance to reasonably gauge these students and their academic achievement.

    Key points for me were:
    1. The teachers at Communitas were credentialed professionals.
    2. The parents I met with were engaged, caring, motivated, smart and hardworking
    3. The students I encountered were fairly typical high school students, but seemed more engaged in their own learning.
    4. The Communitas Charter didn’t fail for academic reasons, it failed because it didn’t attract a sufficient number of students; a marketing failure.

    Lastly, I am under no delusion that all High School Educations are the same. We graduate a wide spectrum of students, some with more academic success and others with less. Colleges by the way do the same thing; some student’s shine brightly academically and some not so much. What is amazing is how weak the connection is between academic performance and “success.”

    Personally, I believe that failure is but a stepping stone success. It is not whether one fails or not, but rather how we each choose to respond to that failure. Do we wallow in self pity at our failure? Do we cry that it’s not our fault? Do we wait for a handout? Or do we do what we instinctively did when we were but a small child when we fell while learning to walk? That’s right, a child after falling instinctively just tries again. They may shed a few tears, but ultimately, they just try again.

    Our precious Silicon Valley is littered with failures. The failures likely outnumber the success by more than 10 to 1. In fact, most businesses fail, many business people fail multiple times, but success in life is not a sprint, it is not guaranteed, and it is different for each and every one of us. One of the speakers at this past year’s graduation at Leigh High School summed it up in one word which was the theme of their talk….. PERSISTENCE!