A California high school that is slated to close in June and reopen as a charter school next fall finds itself at the center of a drama starring an angry teachers’ union, a frustrated superintendent, and an ex-professional basketball player who hopes to give his former school a fresh start after years of failure.
Act I in this contentious saga began when the Sacramento school board voted in January to close Sacramento High School, after the state targeted the 1,800- student school for sanctions and possible takeover because it had failed to raise student achievement for two consecutive years.
The curtain rose on Act II last week, when the school board gave preliminary approval to a charter proposal from the St. Hope Corp., a nonprofit group in Sacramento founded by Kevin Johnson, a 1983 Sacramento High graduate who went on to have an All-Star career in the National Basketball Association.
But a final decision on who receives the charter will not be made until March 17, after a charter proposal from a group of teachers at Sacramento High that has the support of the local teachers’ union is presented along with another plan from the school’s Visual and Performing Arts Center magnet program.
With one dissenting vote, the school board of the 52,000-student district in the state capital gave initial approval to St. Hope’s plan on March 3, even as the local affiliate of the National Education Association continued to cry foul.
The Sacramento City Teachers Association, which has come up with its own charter plan for the school, contends that the St. Hope plan dodges state rules for converting regular public schools to charter status that require signatures of support from more than half the school’s teachers.
But the St. Hope Corp. argues that it does not need to comply with those conversion requirements because the school is to be closed. The group instead followed procedures for opening new charter schools, collecting more than 1,000 signatures from Sacramento High parents.
“We have a real opportunity to make this one of the finest urban high schools in America,” Margaret Fortune, the project manager for the organization’s charter plan, said last week. “Not only are we coming to the table with an education program that is sound and effective, but in a time of budget crisis, we are bringing additional resources.”
St. Hope, which plans to break up the school into six small learning communities, has attracted $3 million in support from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The group is also backed by prominent educators, including Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University who is helping design the school.
“Because of the attention we have been able to bring to the school from both educators and fund-raisers, we really have a good chance to turn the school around,” Ms. Fortune said.
The district superintendent, James Sweeney, acknowledged that the charter-approval process has widened an existing rift between the district and the union.
“We are trying to do something bold here,” Mr. Sweeney said. “We think doing the same old thing in large, urban high schools is negligent. We have one of the most difficult, constraining contracts in America, and we have a union that needs to be more reasonable.”
The teachers’ union disagrees.
“The district has changed the rules of the game,” said Lori Easterling, the executive director of the 3,000- member Sacramento union. “The public has been disregarded. They have not been engaged in the process. This is not our attempt to defend the status quo.”
If St. Hope gets the go-ahead, current teachers at Sacramento High would have to reapply for their jobs. If they were rehired, they would be employees of the St. Hope Corp. and would have to form their own union if they wanted to bargain collectively. Under the “Partnership Charter School” proposal backed by the union, teachers at the school would be district employees and part of the local union.
St. Hope works on an array of community-building programs in the south Sacramento neighborhood of Oak Park, where the high school is located. The faith-based organization has run an after-school tutoring program for years and has already won district approval to open a charter school next fall for K-4 students.
St. Hope’s plan calls for a liberal arts core curriculum and learning communities focused on different careers, such as art, business, science, health, journalism, and public service.
Eric Premack, the co-director of the Charter Schools Development Center at California State University-Sacramento, which serves as a consultant to charter schools, suggested that the district’s strategy— closing a troubled school and allowing an outside group to come in and run it as a charter—lends the Sacramento High situation an unusual twist.
“It’s a very big deal, not just statewide but nationally,” he said. “It’s a prominent example of a district realizing that charter laws can, if you’re willing to step up to the plate, offer a whole new avenue of improving schools.”
But Manny Hernandez, the sole school board member to vote against St. Hope’s proposal, argues that Sacramento High has been failed as much by the district as educators at the school. As one of three board members who voted in January not to close the school, he says the school has a declining number of certified teachers and a remedial-reading program that has been allowed to flounder.
Howard Lawrence, the president of Sacramento Area Congregations Together, a multidenominational group that represents 45,000 community members, called the controversy over the high school a “damn mess.”
“We’re asking that everyone get in a room together and try to figure out how to reconstitute the school,” he said. “There shouldn’t be just one set of winners and losers.”