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Borders, boundaries and barriers have been a way of life in the lower Sacramento Valley since the Gold Rush days. The newest form of green line here is charter schools.

Published on June 11, 2019

By Bill Raden

“I GREW UP HERE WHEN WE WERE VERY SEGREGATED,” says Kerry Koerwitz, who’s spent 28 years teaching in West Sacramento’s public schools. In those days, before her city’s 1987 incorporation out of four Yolo County port towns across the Sacramento River from the state capital, the Southern Pacific railroad and Sacramento Northern freight tracks formed a near-impassable  no-man’s land that divided the northern, mostly Mexican immigrant enclaves of Broderick and Bryte from the southern, predominately white villages of rural Southport and “old” West Sacramento.

“If you were from West Sac, you didn’t go over to Broderick; and if you were from Broderick, you didn’t really come over to West Sac,” recalls Koerwitz, now a career and college readiness counselor for the 12-campus Washington Unified School District (WUSD). “It was very physically separated … until we combined high schools. And for the first five years it was pretty rough. There were a lot of fights.”

Charters tend to isolate students by race and class through “election biases” — features that attract certain kinds of families at the expense of others.

Borders, boundaries and barriers, man-made and natural, have been a way of life in this part of the lower Sacramento Valley since the Gold Rush days. Like the Deep Water Ship Channel, which has replaced the tracks as the de facto boundary between West Sac’s older, lower-income north and its newer, whiter, more middle-class subdivisions in the south.

Or the privacy fence that cordons off Elkhorn Village Elementary School and blue-collar, immigrant Broderick from The Rivers, a 200-acre gated community of luxury estates built during the 2000s, with price tags topping out at $1 million-plus.

But representing the newest form of green line in West Sacramento are charter schools — publicly funded but privately operated academies that are free from many of the regulations governing public schools. Although that freedom was once supposed to encourage innovation, the door it has opened has also made charters the latest flavor of school segregation. For a state like California, which enshrines diversity in a statutory balancing test that requires charter schools to “achieve a racial and ethnic balance among its pupils that is reflective of the general population” of their districts, unregulated school choice can be like putting out a fire with gasoline

Elkhorn Village, a traditional public elementary school

West Sacramento is hardly alone when it comes to racially isolating charter schools. A 2017 Associated Press study was the latest to find rampant self-segregation in the national charter sector, reporting that charters are “vastly overrepresented” among so-called apartheid schools — those with at least 99 percent minority enrollments. Even in majority-minority California, which scores higher on charter school integration than other states, black students have been shown to typically move from a traditional public school that is 39 percent black to a charter that is 51 percent black.

“The problem with charters is their fundamental premise that if something’s not public it’s going to be better,” says Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project (CRP) and a research professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. “We learned in the civil rights period that you had to have requirements on [school] choice if you’re going to get a positive outcome. But a lot of these charter schools are set up in a way that explicitly [segregate]. They don’t reach out for other groups of kids and have no integration policies at all, which raises big constitutional issues.”

“Dual-language programs have been a way that many people have seen to integrate schools. But they can be used to segregate kids.”

A landmark, 2010 CRP study on school choice and segregation found that schools specifically set up on racial or class grounds — what Orfield calls “white flight” charters — had begun appearing in several Western and Southern states. Last year, an investigation by the Hechinger Report and the Investigative Fund (using 2015 data) put the nationwide total of such schools at 115, employing a benchmark typically used in federal desegregation lawsuits (“those with white student populations at least 20 percent higher than any traditional public schools in the district”). California accounted for 33 of them. Near the top of that list is West Sacramento’s 95.5 percent white EPIC (Empowering Possibilities International Charter), a K-8, dual Russian- and Spanish-language charter that caters to the area’s Russian immigrant community.

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EPIC IS ONE OF FOUR INDEPENDENT CHARTERS that operate within WUSD’s boarders. What they all have in common is the way they flunk California’s racial balancing test.

Neither EPIC nor a second charter, Heritage Peak, a K-12 online credit recovery and homeschooling operation, were originally authorized by WUSD. EPIC was only authorized on appeal by the Yolo County Office of Education, and Heritage Peak, which opened a “resource center” in West Sac on West Capitol Avenue without WUSD’s knowledge or approval, was authorized by a district across the river.

“Heritage Peak has elementary and high school kids, but I can’t get their data on the Dashboard,” complains WUSD school board trustee Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, referring to the California Department of Education website that provides school and district achievement and demographic data. She herself is a veteran, national-board-certified teacher. “There’s a lot of issues around charters. We already don’t have a lot of oversight power, but then when other cities’ school districts approve charters, it’s just detrimental to what you do.”

The tendency of charters to isolate students by race and class is baked in by what education researchers call selection biases — features that attract certain kinds of families at the expense of others. Because California doesn’t fund transportation for charter schools, for example, simply by being a charter in the Golden State is to select out the most disadvantaged, single-parent families that live the furthest away from the campus. Impose a complicated application process, or require pricey uniforms or “voluntary” parent labor, and that effect is magnified. Make the charter too culturally focused, as with EPIC’s dual-language program, and the bias can become dramatic. (EPIC did not respond to requests for comment.)

“Dual-language programs have been a way that many people have seen to integrate schools,” notes CRP co-director and UCLA education research professor Patricia Gandara. “But they can be used to segregate the kids in the fashion that it looks like [what] is going on [at EPIC] with the Russian program — that they’re not trying to bring other English-speakers who want to learn Russian into it. And so it provides a cover to segregate just the Russian kids.”

“If you’ve got a diverse community and the school is only one ethnicity, somebody should make sure that they’re reaching out to everybody that might be eligible to go there,” Orfield adds.

EPIC’s daily Russian-language classroom instruction turns out to be a highly efficient means of selecting out non-Russian families.

EPIC’s program, which according to its website consists of daily Russian-language classroom instruction from kindergarten through second grade, turns out to be a highly efficient means of selecting out non-Russian families. But equally implicated is the K-8, Punjabi dual-language  curriculum offered by Sacramento Valley Charter School, which was authorized by WUSD in 2011 and reauthorized in March. Situated in West Sac’s warehouse district, literally on the grounds of the Sacramento Sikh Temple, the academically high-achieving program caters to the region’s low-income, South Asian immigrant community, but its 89 percent Asian enrollment — WUSD’s Asian average is 11 percent — and negligible share of students with disabilities are startling.

“While I think it’s actually a private school using taxpayer dollars,” says WUSD school board trustee Coby Pizzotti, “what good is that in terms of broadening your horizons and learning about other cultures? It doesn’t help you. So I’d like to see more cultures come in to expand the diversity in that one school. It would be beneficial.”

Sacramento Valley Charter School

“It’s been an issue that we’ve had to face,” concedes Sac Valley Charter School secretary Andrew Tracy, “because we’ve heard from people, even from the district, that assume that we cater specifically to [South Asian] students, and we don’t. We’re constantly trying to get students from outside that community, just to try and show people that we’re not just a Southeast Asian or a Sikh school specifically.”

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AND THEN THERE’S LIGHTHOUSE CHARTER, a K-8 program originally authorized by WUSD in 2013 and reauthorized last February, which occupies a sleek new campus of well-equipped classrooms on a shaded Broderick street. With an enrollment that is not only whiter than WUSD’s whitest school, Bridgeway Island Elementary below the barge canal, but considerably wealthier than its nearest neighboring north West Sac public schools — Elkhorn Village Elementary and Riverbank Elementary — Lighthouse’s selection bias is rooted in its founding DNA.

According to a 2013 blog post by the California Charter School Association (CCSA), the school originated from demands made by new families in The Rivers:

Now, these young parents are seeking high quality schools for their children, but they are not finding appealing options. The housing developers set aside land for a school, but there aren’t enough students for Washington Unified School District to justify construction of a new facility. Not content to wait, three parents reached out to CCSA.

Chief among those unappealing options was Elkhorn, the 81 percent Hispanic-Latino, 94 percent socioeconomically disadvantaged K-8 campus on the other side of The Rivers’ privacy fence.

“Elkhorn had a bad rap when I first started,” says 11-year teacher Anselmo Marin, who teaches science to sixth, seventh and eighth graders out of the portable classrooms that contain Elkhorn’s middle-school program. “People didn’t recognize or didn’t see the things we do at Elkhorn for our students, or the positive impact that Elkhorn has had. I think those attitudes have been changed.”

A Punjabi dual-language curriculum is offered by Sacramento Valley Charter School, which is located on the grounds of the Sacramento Sikh Temple.

Ironically, although Elkhorn teaches some of the district’s most difficult to reach, high-needs students and landed on the state’s lowest-performing schools list this year (a federally mandated holdover from the test-and-punish days of the No Child Left Behind era), the school has become a WUSD success story in recent years. In addition to offering AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), district-wide college readiness training, and MESA (Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement), a STEM career-focused, project-based enrichment program, Elkhorn introduced the district’s only Spanish-English dual immersion program that today draws families from across West Sacramento.

“I’m really, really proud of their program,” enthuses WUSD board trustee Sarah Kirby-Gonzales, who dismisses the low-performance list as the product of culturally biased testing. “The Dashboard doesn’t show the whole story,” she says. “The key is having our principals and our office staff be bilingual. That’s a really important piece to make families feel comfortable. It doesn’t help us attract the folks behind [The Rivers’] fancy gate, but in terms of really serving kids’ needs, our [bilingual educators] are great leaders and doing good work.”

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THE MARKETING LIABILITY of a high-poverty neighborhood school wasn’t lost on The Rivers’ developer, Stockton-based Grupe Homes. In 2006 Grupe tried to entice WUSD into creating a school option more in keeping with the project’s exclusive marketing campaign by offering the district a 12.3-acre parcel at the prime corner of Lighthouse Drive and Fountain Drive, but only on the condition that WUSD would create a K-8 school of choice.

“’If you can make a magnet school, which will attract these new homebuyers for our multimillion-dollar homes, we’ll let you do that,’” Koerwitz remembers the company offering. “Washington Unified said, ‘No thank you.’”

When it comes to their children’s schooling, parents are sometimes guided by best intentions that are overruled by bad instincts and too easily swayed by unmistakable dog whistles in charter messaging that emphasizes words like “safe” and “high quality.”

Ultimately, it was parents from the new subdivisions below the barge canal in the Southport area that set Lighthouse into motion, by defecting from their own designated neighborhood public school in favor of Delta Elementary Charter School (DECS), founded in 2007 in Clarksburg, a rural hamlet 20 minutes downriver from West Sac. DECS offered an agriculture and arts-focused, “project-based learning” program — a learn-by-doing curriculum based on group student projects that tie academics to “real-world” problem solving. The school was soon at capacity, with a majority of its 400 students attending from West Sacramento. For Delta, capitalizing on that success by expanding into West Sacramento was simply good business.

“There were a lot of parents from Southport that couldn’t get into DECS and I said, ‘Gosh, replicate what you do there here in West Sacramento,” remembers Steve Lewis, superintendent of River Charter Schools, which is Lighthouse and Delta’s charter management organization. “At the beginning I thought, ‘Oh, we’ll try to do that ag focus.’ But the reality was we were going to be in that urban setting, and I realized, ‘Gosh, there’s an opportunity to really partner with new organizations, new businesses’ and take advantage of the fact that we were right across a bridge from the Capitol.”

In 2013, DECS cut a deal with The Rivers for the still-vacant magnet parcel and filed a charter petition with Washington Unified, which later that year authorized Lighthouse. When that site subsequently tested positive for chlordane toxicity, Lighthouse was forced to rent classroom space in West Sacramento’s State Streets neighborhood, where it opened in 2015. It took another two years to find a new lot and build its current facility. By the time the charter returned before WUSD for reauthorization this past winter, says WUSD school board trustee Coby Pizzotti, the school’s un-diverse demographics had begun raising red flags.

Particularly alarming was Lighthouse’s request that the district approve it for the federal free -or reduced- lunch program, in spite of the fact that with only 21.8 percent of its student body considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, the school fell far shy of the federal qualifying threshold of 55 percent of enrollment. To bring its poverty level up to what Pizzotti considered more equitable to taxpayers, the trustee tried to persuade the school to accept a recalibration of their admissions lottery that that would give the same priority to neighborhood kids as the school already gave the children of its founders, employees and board members.

“They rejected it out of hand,” Pizzotti says. “They just absolutely said, ‘No.’”

Superintendent Lewis insists that since relocating to the Broderick-Bryte neighborhood, Lighthouse’s share of socioeconomically disadvantaged students is now closer to 50 percent, a number that won’t be reflected on the Dashboard until after the next reporting period.

Although Pizzotti and Kirby-Gonzales were ultimately able to persuade Lighthouse to accept some minor tweaks to the school’s petition, the trustees ultimately felt handcuffed by a process and a state law that left them too little leeway and not enough leverage.

“I’ll be honest,” says Kirby-Gonzales; “We have very little oversight as a school board, and charters have very good lobbyists. We do what we can, but if they meet their legal requirement, you have to approve them.”

“I would like to see more authority given to local school districts to deny charter petitions and renewals,” Pizzotti adds. “Because right now the law says, ‘The school district shall not deny a petition to move forward except for X, Y and Z criteria.’ Which means you’re forced to let this happen rather than making it contingent on whether or not the local school district would suffer huge financial losses. … This year, we saw a loss of students [to Lighthouse] to the tune of about $1 million for us.”

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WHEN IT COMES TO THEIR CHILDREN’S SCHOOLING, parents are sometimes guided by best intentions that are overruled by bad instincts and too easily swayed by charter messaging that emphasizes words like “safe” and “high quality” — subtle yet unmistakable dog whistles with racial and economic connotations. And though few parents will openly admit to choosing a school because of its racial makeup, a 2016 paper that looked at school lottery data in Washington, D.C., showed that the diversity “sweet spot” for white Washingtonians was elementary schools where no less than 60 percent of the student body was white. White North Carolinian parents, another study concluded, prefer schools that are less than 20 percent black. Other research has shown that Americans insist academic performance is their chief concern, often despite any statistically significant proof of superior achievement at their chosen schools.

“You’re going to end up with these [less diverse] enclaves,” reflects University of Connecticut professor of educational leadership and law Preston Green on what happens when parents choose. “Because with people, like will always go to like.”

School Board Trustee: “We have very little oversight as a school board and charters
have very good lobbyists.”

Lighthouse parent Katie Kanowsky Souza, who lives in Southport’s Bridgeway Island neighborhood, has two kids in charter schools and a third who went through the public-school system. She says she removed a son from Bridgeway Island Elementary, her neighborhood’s district school, because his ADHD prevented him from staying focused in Bridgeway’s large classroom setting, and he wasn’t enjoying school. Lighthouse’s then-class size of 18 students per teacher made it easier for her son to learn. Though its class sizes have increased into the low-30s since Lighthouse moved into its permanent campus this year, Kanowsky Souza’s enthusiasm remains undiminished.

“What brought me to Lighthouse was project-based learning, and smaller class sizes,” she says. “I would say the teaching quality at Lighthouse is slightly lower than the regular school. The teachers they get are newer. They’ve had to adjust more, and that’s had an effect on teaching quality. But because of the way the school is set up, I still feel my son is getting a better education. … For children with different learning styles, being able to have that flexibility has made a big difference.”

Yet Lighthouse’s curriculum turns out to be not so different from WUSD schools, which also offer the arts and music curricula that Lighthouse features in its advertising, along with elements of project-based learning.

“Project-based learning is ingrained in the Common Core,” notes WUSD trustee Pizzotti. “I know there’s a large chunk of schools in WUSD that do it heavily. And I think that a lot of what Lighthouse has done, and has done very well, is utilized their project-based learning as a marketing tool to say it’s better than other avenues of learning. But to say that it is unique is obviously a misnomer, and it’s obviously coming from somebody that hasn’t visited a WUSD school.

”Nevertheless, the verdict on the benefits of integrated schools has been in since the 1966 “Coleman Report” first found that the racial/ethnic and socioeconomic composition of a student’s school are 1 3/4 times more important than a student’s individual race, ethnicity or social class in determining educational outcomes. Numerous subsequent studies have shown that students in schools that are both racially and economically integrated are less likely to drop out and more likely to enroll in college, while integrated schools narrow achievement gaps and encourage critical thinking and problem solving.

“There definitely are civic benefits as well,” adds Green. “The research does show that people who grow up in diverse neighborhoods are much more comfortable doing so, they are also much more comfortable going to school with people from other groups. They’re certainly much more comfortable living in diverse settings.”

But assuring that diversity, says Pizzotti, will require beefing up the regulatory and oversight powers of charter authorizers.

“The whole idea of charter schools is that they’re going to be able to do whatever they want,” adds Orfield. “But trying to regulate a million different tiny, one-school school districts? There’s not the administrative capacity to really examine what’s happening to them closely, unless somebody calls attention to it. That’s why there needs to be some clear road maps — some data analysis about what’s going on to target places where there may be violations going on.”

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