Bertha Rodríguez Santos, New America Media
LOS ANGELES—California leads the nation in charter school growth this year, according to a report released last month by The Center for Education Reform.
With 912 charter schools in the state, up 114 from the 2009-2010 academic year, charter administrators are being praised for developing what many believe is one of the most effective models for educating low-income students.
But far less attention has been paid to the closure rate of charter schools. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, over the past two academic years, 281 charter schools, or about 6 percent of the total open in 2008-09, closed nationwide. In California, there have been 150 closures since in 1992, when the state’s charter school law was enacted, and 72 in just the past three years.
What happens to kids when a charter school fails?
Thalía Saavedra, 17, has a sweet and mild demeanor, but she grows angry when discussing the unexpected closure of her school, Animo Justice Charter High School, earlier this year.
“They didn’t even give up the opportunity to share our opinions,” said Thalia.“They never gave us a voice, they never notified us in advance. They just told us, ‘It’s closing,’ and that’s it.”
The news came one Friday morning in late March, when Saavedra and her classmates were asked to gather in the school gym. The students assumed they were to attend an ordinary assembly, though none was scheduled.
Instead, representatives from Green Dot, the L.A-based charter school network that opened Animo Justice in 2006, informed the students that the school was being shut down in June.
In an interview, Marco Petruzzi, president of Green Dot, blamed the decision on financial problems, low enrollment, and poor academic performance, in addition the failure of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to provide the school with promised facilities.
Teachers learned the news just 20 minutes before the announcement to students. Green Dot’s chief academic officer, Cristina de Jesús, and vice president of education, Megan Quaile, gave a Power Point presentation on the school’s attendance and test scores, then informed teachers of the closure.
Science teacher Judy Riemenschneider called the process of evaluating and shutting down the school unfair and “truly insulting.”
Another teacher, who asked not to be identified, said she was told not to say anything to students and warned that if she “opened her mouth,” she would be in trouble
The school’s 500 students, meanwhile, were shocked—and devastated. More than 90 percent of them were Latinos, nearly half were English Language Learners, and the school was the only one in the Green Dot network that offered classes in English as a Second Language. Where were students supposed to go? What would happen to the community they had worked so hard to create?
Fast Growth, Big Plans
Founded in 1999, Green Dot is a fast-growing charter-school network that operates 18 schools in Los Angeles and one in New York with public and private funds. Supporters include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Oscar de la Hoya Foundation, the Wachovia Foundation and Wells Fargo bank, among others
On its website, it says it is “leading the charge to transform public education in Los Angeles and beyond so that all children receive the education they need to be successful in college, leadership, and life.” Yet Animo Justice’s problems began even before it was launched.
Originally, Green Dot had sought to take over troubled Jefferson High School, in South Central Los Angeles. But when LAUSD did not allow the charter school network to use the Jefferson facilities as originally planned, Green Dot decided to compete with Jefferson students by opening five charter schools in surrounding neighborhoods, according to Marco Petruzzi.
Animo Justice’s first location was a building between Broadway and 26th Street in South Central L.A. But the next year, the school moved to Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, where students took classes in 10 portable classrooms installed in the parking lot.
In 2008, the school changed locations again, to a small building, near Long Beach Boulevard in South Central, where it remained until its closure.
The industrial environment wasn’t optimal for academic achievement. Less than a block away, a train passed by every 15 minutes, and the noise made it difficult for students to concentrate, Thalia said.
Ismael “Mike” Sebastián, who followed the school from one campus another and graduated in June, recalled one day when a strong odor from the bathroom’s flooded drainage system gave students bad headaches, and they had to call the paramedics. A sociology teacher said the poor air quality near the school “affects the brain cells.”
Petruzzi acknowledged that the frequent moves and lack of a permanent building contributed to low student enrollment, which in turn added to the school’s financial problems. The school was under-resourced in other ways that hurt achievement.
For example, Thalia said her regular math and English teachers were absent for an entire year. Instead, the classes were taught by substitutes with little experience
Meanwhile, with three principals in four years, the school lacked strong leadership, Riemenschneider said
According to Ed-Data, during the 2008-2009 school year, only 13.9 percent of Animo Justice students were proficient in English Language Arts, a significant drop from 26.9 percent proficiency the previous year. The percentage of students proficient in math dropped from 23.1 percent in 2007-08 to 14 percent in 2008-09
A Strong Community
For all its problems, however, students deeply cared about the school. It was they and parents who chose to combine the word “Justice” with the word “Animo,” a name now borne by all of Green Dot’s L.A. schools. They also chose the school’s colors and the phoenix as the school’s mascot.
The small class size allowed students to form close relationships. Everyone knew each other. Thalia said she considered the school to be her second home: the academic part of her family. Mike Sebastián said the teachers always knew what was going on with the kids.
At first, students were paralyzed by the news. Then, putting their academic lessons on social justice into action, they decided to fight. The next day, they staged a sit-in protest in the hallways instead of attending class.
Several days later, some 400 students spontaneously marched the six miles to Green Dot’s offices on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles.
“You got your education. Now give us ours. We want justice,” the students’ signs read.
But the students’ chanting and discontent had no effect. Marco Petruzzi met them for two hours to explain the reasons for the closure, but did not change his mind.
Education as a Business
"For them, our education is a business,” Thalia said. “They used grades to try to blame us, but in reality, they were the ones who failed.”
One teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes Green Dot and other charter school operators mislead students and parents about what they can accomplish. They promise families a high-quality education, but unlike parents in affluent areas like Beverly Hills, low-income parents lack the resources to supplement what the schools can provide, the teacher said. In the end, many charter schools are unable to meet the expectations they set.
“It’s exactly like a factory,” she said. If a school does not perform according to the established parameters, the charter school operator can close it, lay off the teachers, and kick out the students—leaving them in the lurch.
In the interview, Petruzzi responded to the criticisms. “It wasn’t a decision we took lightly...The state is in bankruptcy; there’s not enough funding. The district has broken the law and not given us facilities.
“We did not give up on the students,” he said. “No teachers lost their jobs because of this. We offered placement in other schools. We are just trying to face the very difficult financial situation the best way possible.”
But the teacher who declined to give her name, who taught at the high school for two years, said she and her colleagues were put in a difficult position. Those who dared to support the students in their attempt to save the school were not rehired by Green Dot, she said many had to look for work in other schools or find another career.
Of the 25 teachers who taught classes at Animo Justice, only half returned to teach at Green Dot schools.
Students, meanwhile, were given a list of Green Dot schools they could select from. They were placed at schools through a lottery system and consideration of what schools would be the best fit for Animo Justice students.
Thalia Savedra is attending a charter school outside the Green Dot network. She plans to graduate this coming June—“if they don’t close it down in the middle of the school year.”
Bertha Rodríguez-Santos, a reporter and editor at El Tequio magazine, has been a newspaper, radio, and TV reporter in Mexico and the United States for 18 years. She produced this story as part of the 2010 NAM Education Beat Fellowship for ethnic media journalists, which is supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.