The class sizes would’ve been small and would’ve prepared students for coveted careers in Silicon Valley’s technology sector. That was Promise Academy’s promise.
The K-8 charter school backed by Silicon Valley philanthropists, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and the city’s Tech Interactive museum hoped to offer some of the city’s poorest students opportunities that are sometimes harder to come by in neighborhood schools.
That’s why Adelita Gomez Alvarez joined Promise in petitioning for its charter authorization through the San Jose Unified School District. Gomez Alvarez signed on to the effort for the sake of her son, Junior Gomez, who attended Grant Elementary School from third to fourth grade.
Frustrated by how her son fared in the local elementary school, Gomez Alvarez transferred him to its charter counterpart, Rocketship Discovery Prep, which only offers classes through fifth grade. She hoped Promise would open in time to prevent her son from returning to a SJUSD school.
Just days before Promise Academy’s long-anticipated opening, however, Gomez Alvarez and the parents of close to 100 other children were told that the school they signed up for didn’t exist. “I didn’t have a plan B,” Gomez Alvarez says. “Promise was my plan. I stood there crying as I toured different charter schools, trying to enroll my son.”
Promise and San Jose Unified blamed each other for the fiasco. Who bears how much responsibility for leaving parents scrambling is the subject of debate. What’s clear is that the conflict represents a broader and intensifying clash between public schools and privately run charters, especially in cash-strapped districts like San Jose Unified that see charters like Promise as a drain on their resources. Charter proponents, on the other hand, view districts like SJUSD as defenders of the status quo, perpetuating an achievement gap that leaves the most destitute and disadvantaged students behind.
After learning that Promise’s planned opening was scuttled, the charter school deployed a public relations firm to contact local media about the situation, which largely stems from a disagreement with SJUSD over projected enrollment.
When Promise surveyed parents to get an idea of how many were “meaningfully interested” in enrolling their kids in the proposed academy, the district launched counter-surveys to challenge the results. When Promise projected rates of daily student attendance, the district responded with counter-projections. When Promise proposed changes to its facilities agreement, according to the charter’s spokespeople, the district ignored their requests. The district disputes that characterization.
The back-and-forth transpired over two school years and morphed into litigation. Less than a week before Promise’s planned launch, SJUSD affirmed that it would not authorize the charter’s opening because it fell short of legally required enrollment threshold. But the district says it notified Promise school officials months ahead of time—and provided San Jose Inside with documentation to prove it.
But Promise still had a card in the deck—its pending lawsuit accusing SJUSD of undercounting projected enrollment.
A week after the Promise Academy’s failed opening, however, it got hit with more bad news. Earlier this month, Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled that the charter’s projections were unreasonably rosy and that SJUSD’s scrutiny was justified, having identified numerous errors in the intent-to-enroll forms submitted by Promise.
The court ruling came as welcome news for district officials after a summer of unresolved dispute. “It is an unprecedented issue for us, dealing with this much uncertainty about what their enrollment is actually going to be,” SJUSD spokesman Ben Spielberg tells San Jose Inside. “It was hard to ascertain what facilities what they wanted, which made it difficult for us to plan for facilities.”
That said, the district shoulders some responsibility for the ongoing brouhaha.
In 2018, a judge ruled that the district used a flawed process in rejecting petitions from families that expressed interest in Promise Academy.
When SJUSD was vetting signatures by contacting the parents, it simply discarded some forms if they couldn’t make contact. And instead of following legal standards by asking whether parents were “meaningfully interested” in the charter, SJUSD officials asked whether they planned to enroll their children in Promise—a seemingly subtle, yet materially significant distinction.
Consequently, the court reminded SJUSD to comply with Prop. 39, which mandates that school districts provide facilities to charter schools. “The school district was not operating in good faith with us from the beginning,” Gomez Alvarez says.
Yolanda Samano, another mother of an aspiring Promise pupil, agrees. “We thought this year would be different,” she says.
Yet still, the tug-of-war continued.
When Promise proposed six sites for the new school, including central locations in the heart of the city, the district offered a site several miles away at Allen and Steinbeck.
“They said they didn’t have any space except for Allen and Steinbeck until a month-and-a-half before school,” Samano says. “We didn’t have buses for parents who thought it was going to be in the downtown area.”
As a result, Promise had to delay its opening from 2018 to this year.
SJUSD officials say Allen and Steinbeck was the only available site that had “reasonably equivalent facilities” to other schools in the district. But Promise made it clear that it didn’t need locker rooms, a gym or science labs.
“It was absolutely an excuse,” Gomez Alvarez says. “When they told us that, we told them that we have decided not to include those particular amenities. Instead, we wanted a high-quality education. But they would not budge.”
The battle over Promise is bigger than a single charter petition.
Public schools have long seen charter schools as a threat because they divert per-pupil funding and take up physical space in districts with the least resources. “Districts had always been wary of charter schools because the money follows the student,” says Robin Lake, a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “The teachers unions have often felt threatened by charter schools.”
Indeed, charters have become increasingly major players in the public education system since California passed the Charter Schools Act in 1992. From 2013 to 2018, SJUSD alone saw a 57 percent uptick in charter enrollment. Though charters receive funding from the public school system, the law grants them more leeway in hopes that they’ll create more innovative curricula and learning models.
That’s what Promise said it would offer. “Our school provides a choice for students who aren’t successful in traditional schools,” says its would-be principal Samantha Hanlon.
Yet charter critics say the answer to languishing public schools isn’t to divert more resources from them. San Jose Unified is already stretched thin, since high housing costs have driven teachers out of the South Bay in search of cheaper locales, leading to a shortage of educators. Almost 300 classrooms Santa Clara County and about 30 in San Jose Unified this year are staffed with substitute teachers.
“Charter schools have become a big red herring,” Lake says. “It has become a much bigger fight around school funding.”
As the dust settles between Promise and SJUSD, it’s clear that both sides shoulder responsibility for leaving families and prospective charter employees in the lurch.
This article has been updated.