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Charter school plan backed by Silicon Valley group meets with opposition

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Board of Education Vice President Stevon Cook said plans for the Mary L. Booker Leadership Academy lack a coherent education plan or strong curriculum. (Examiner file photo)

A new charter school seeking approval to serve middle and high school students in the Bayview District has been met with criticism from public school advocates over its proposed education plan and ties to the controversial Silicon Valley education reform group, Innovate Public Schools.

Plans for the Mary L. Booker Leadership Academy include serving 420 student from the Bayview and Mission districts in grades 6 through 12 over the next five years, although it would initially open as a grades 6-8 middle school in the 2019-2020 school year.

A petition for the school’s approval will go before a Board of Education subcommittee for a vote on Wednesday and, if approved there, before the full board in June.

But the petition has already received a negative recommendation from another school board committee. Board Vice President Stevon Cook on Tuesday said the Academy’s proposed education plan is an issue.

“It was a lack of a coherent education plan, a strong curriculum, and a lack of understanding around restorative practices,” said Cook, who added that he only opposes charters that have “a track record of systematically pushing [students] out that may have behavioral challenges or disabilities, then I take issue with that approach.”

School board members in the past have criticized charter schools, which are exempt from certain state laws and guidelines governing school districts, for lacking accountability.

Cook said that the board is involved in ongoing conversations over engaging charters over district guidelines and practices, including tracking and sharing certain student outcomes.

The Academy is a new school with a clean record, but its connection to Innovate Public Schools — a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit working to reform underperforming schools and create new charter schools — has drawn the ire of public school advocates, who have criticized Innovate for pushing for new charter schools with corporate funding at the expense of public school resources.

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The Academy’s principal, Terrence Davis, is currently employed with Innovate in the role of “school founder-in-residence,” and the nonprofit is providing “short term support” to launch the school.

“Innovate is not a charter school operator. We support teachers and school leaders to create excellent schools and turnaround low-performing schools,” said Innovate spokesperson Silvia Scandar Mahan, adding that once the Academy is open, it “will be run entirely independently.”

The San Francisco Examiner has previously reported that among Innovate’s high-profile donors is the Walton Family Foundation — a philanthropic organization launched by Walmart founders Sam and Helen Walton that since 1997 has invested more than $407 million in efforts to grow charter schools.

Last October, a report published by Innovate chastised the school district for a persistent achievement gap in regard to its Black and Latino students. Innovate CEO Matt Hammer told the Examiner at the time that the report intended to create “a sense of urgency around addressing this gap.”

But Alison Collins, a public school advocate who is also a candidate in the school board race, said that the school district is focusing resources on underperforming schools. When a student leaves a public school for a charter school, state funding tied to that student moves to the charter school as well, resulting in cutbacks at public schools.

“I think it’s problematic when any organization is pushing the privatization agenda,” said Cook. “ [Innovate is] big on casting blame and not big on solutions.”

Public school advocates also argue that under-enrolled schools — which are primarily located in The City’s southeastern sector, in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates — are disproportionately affected by charter school co-location and attrition. State law requires SFUSD to offer space in its facilities to charter schools that request it.

With an expressed mission of “developing the next generation of diverse leaders in San Francisco,” the proposed school’s namesake is revered Bayview community activist Mary L. Booker. Over the last two years, the school’s creation — including the naming process — has been community driven, according to Davis.

“Our core values are community, equity, leadership,” said Davis. “Our school model came from those [community] discussions. My role as a leader is working with our design team to create a ‘great’ school.”

Davis described Innovate as a school “incubator” that is providing the funding for starting the Academy and other charter schools, and added that his employment with the group will end once the school is established.

In regard to its education plan, Davis said that he believes it meets the state’s charter school criteria.

“When we got feedback from the district, they were looking for additional information,” he said, adding that he is “more than willing to meet” with school board members to address concerns.

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