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SF education leaders resist efforts to open new charter school

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Students attend a geometry class at KIPP San Francisco College Preparatory school in the Bayview District. KIPP also operates two middle schools in The City. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Before transferring to KIPP San Francisco College Preparatory as a junior, 17-year-old Jaden Turner said he did not at all feel ready for college.

“When I came into KIPP, I didn’t even know how to write an actual college-level essay,” Turner, now a senior at the charter high school, said Friday. “And now I do.”

The Bayview District resident lives just blocks from the charter school, located at 1196 Hudson Ave., and is a product of both charter and private schools. At the latter, Turner, who is black, said he felt out of place.

“You have a public school atmosphere, but in terms of curriculum, I feel it’s more like private school,” he said about KIPP.

When the Board of Education on Tuesday unanimously rejected an application for a new KIPP elementary school set to open in the Bayview next school year, hundreds of parent, teacher and student supporters — including Turner — decried the decision.

“Finding KIPP at the junior and senior level has opened doors for my son,” said Pastor Ken Reece.

Many said the school board was cutting off a lifeline for educating underserved students, specifically black students, in the neighborhood.

But the board’s opposition to the new school’s petition served as a clear statement on the movement for “school choice” that has gained momentum following a proposed bolster in funding by the federal government earlier this year.

The petition also comes on the heels of recent calls by city and civic leaders to address poor achievement outcomes for San Francisco Unified School District’s black students.

SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews on Tuesday issued a report that highlighted racial disparities in The City’s schools and tasked the board with developing detailed strategies to address a systemic lack of opportunity for black students.

Also Tuesday, Rev. Amos Brown, president of the NAACP San Francisco chapter, called on the board to declare a state of emergency on the opportunity gap faced by black students.

The district has launched incremental efforts to close the achievement gap in its schools, said board Vice President Hydra Mendoza-McDonnell, adding that district resources and state dollars are best spent on supporting those efforts.

“I worry regularly that as we start chipping away at the system of traditional public schools, that we start chipping away at those other options and opportunities that we are committed to providing to our young people,” Mendoza-McDonnell said.

Charter schools like KIPP are publicly funded but independently run in SFUSD’s facilities.

“We have no choice but to find a space and place for them,” said board President Shamann Walton, adding that their existence encroaches on SFUSD’s per pupil funding allocation and splits up “our ability to raise resources from philanthropy and private sector.”

“I don’t think it’s productive to separate our system like that,” he said. “They use public dollars to create a private school setting.”

The proposed school would be the first KIPP elementary school in The City, set to open next school year with the capacity to serve some 437 students in grades K-4 by 2022-23. Along with its high school, KIPP already operates two middle schools in the Bayview and Western Addition.

A petition signed by more than 150 parents who expressed interest in enrolling their children in the elementary school speaks to the need in the community, according to KIPP CEO Beth Sutkus Thompson.

“Parents want more high quality school options in their community,” said Sutkus Thompson.

But board staff deemed the proposed elementary school’s petition unlikely to successfully implement its program, citing concerns over suspension and expulsion policies, among other things.

Those concerns and more were echoed by each of the board’s commissioners.

While enrollment at KIPP is open to anyone, a rigorous curriculum and autonomy regarding suspension and expulsion policies result in the most challenged students being “counseled out,” Walton said.

Commissioner Stevon Cook said he has had family members who have been “pushed out of KIPP.”

“There is no makeup policy if you miss the assignment and a get a zero,” Cook said. “There is a fundamentally different way to which we approach education.”

Savina Woodyard, principal at KIPP San Francisco College Preparatory, said the school “works with students” and makes every effort to retain them.

Three years ago, KIPP has implemented a new focus on social and emotional learning and restorative practices that have cut suspension rates across its schools from 12 percent down to 7 percent, Thompson, the CEO, said.

“We have not had any expulsions the last two years,” Thompson said.

Despite the school board’s refusal to authorize a new charter school in the neighborhood, its members voted unanimously Tuesday to renew the high school’s charter, which had expired.

Still, Thompson said KIPP plans to appeal the board’s decision regarding the elementary school at the state level. If granted in March, the school could still open up next year, in one of the school district’s facilities.

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