One of San Francisco’s whitest non-private schools just fought the local school district for the right to expand, and won.
But the victory comes with a twist: the right to expand comes with a state mandate that could change the school’s population for years to come.
The charter school at hand is unquestionably successful, at least on paper. But can it stay that way if it shifts its focus from serving only the most successful students to those who struggle?
New School, a Kindergarten-5th grade institution in San Francisco’s diverse Potrero Hill neighborhood, was granted the ability to grow into a K-8 school by the California State Board of Education just last Thursday.
The approval came over the objections of the San Francisco Board of Education, which has rebuked New School and other charters for competing with traditional public schools for much-needed space, as state law requires districts to accommodate charters’ request for facilities.
Members of the board have also called out New School for being among the whitest schools in San Francisco, alleging that it serves primarily affluent students while leaving students of color behind.
“They got what they wanted, even though the school board said no,” Susan Solomon, president of the United Educators of San Francisco told me Monday. “Do we need another school that has a diversity issue?”
But while the local school board saw its decision overturned by the state, the heart of the issue may still be addressed.
In granting the appeal to expand into serving middle school students, the California Board of Education attached a requirement for New School to diversify its student body. Every student the school admits amidst its expansion must be eligible for free and reduced-price meals, a a measure that serves as a proxy for low-income students who are overwhelmingly kids of color.
That mandate will stay in place until New School reaches a goal of 50 percent of its students being eligible for free or reduced-price meals. And while the charter school touted its higher test scores to the state last week, comparing them disparagingly to local public schools its leaders described specifically as a “failure,” the State Board of Education believes meeting this challenge will be New School’s true academic achievement, so to speak.
“What we have now is really a school that has excelled in academic performance that really will be tested if we change the criteria selection,” board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon told the public last Thursday, shortly before the state school board’s vote. “I love your framework, but I have to say it’s been in theory mode … once you change the (admissions) preference you’ll see what reality looks like.”
What that looks like right now, at least, is wildly different than most of San Francisco’s public schools.
Demographic data kept by the San Francisco Unified School District shows New School to be among the top five whitest public and public charter schools in San Francisco, with 52 percent of its student body identifying as white. That puts it just a few percentage points below Grattan Elementary School, which historically has been the district’s whitest public school.
By and large, however, that doesn’t match up with the district’s demographics.
San Francisco sports 136 non-private schools, and roughly 90 private schools, with a well-documented, historic flight of white families to private schools and public charters. White families are often wealthier on the whole than families of color, and their departure can draw much-needed financial support from public schools in multiple ways.
The conversation over New School also comes as the dust is settling over statewide changes to charter schools. Two state bills, Assembly Bill 1505 and 1507, aimed at giving local school districts more control over approving charter schools across the state, were signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom just last year.
Charter schools are seen as especially pernicious by public school advocates, as they broadly enjoy the privilege of private schools to cut out students who don’t succeed and bring down test scores, instead of sticking it out with them — while still being publicly funded.
For that reason, among others, “we’re really concerned and have worked at the district to limit charter expansion inside of San Francisco,” said Kevine Boggess, political director at Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, a local school advocacy organization.
Still, the organization sees nuance in the debate. While it is true that “a lot of them are closer to the zero-tolerance policies of my youth where you kick someone out and hope they change by being separate from everybody,” he said, “we can’t have an abundance of charter schools replacing public schools, but there’s a place for charter public schools, especially those focusing on the hardest to reach students like Five Keys, schools that play that role.”
As for New School, Boggess hopes they’re able to boost the number of low-income students and students of color that they can support.
SFUSD is only 15 percent white, sporting a 27 percent Latinx, 35 percent Asian, and 7 percent African American population, among other demographics. Roughly 55 percent of SFUSD’s students are “economically disadvantaged,” reflecting affluent families’ preference to bypass the system entirely for private schools and charter schools, including New School.
Only about 11.5 percent of New School’s students are economically disadvantaged students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, according to city data.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, New School’s founders Emily Bobel Kilduff and Ryan Chapman pushed back against the local board of education’s assertions.
Firstly, they said, they’re aware of their diversity issues, and tussled with the state for permission to tweak their admissions process so they could admit more diverse students. But at least two of those requests to change admissions processes were denied because the school lacked adequate financial reserves, school leaders said at Thursday’s state Board of Education meeting.
Bobel Kilduff also said New School shouldn’t be held responsible for a city-wide systemic inequity.
“We have one of the most segregated school systems in our country here,” Bobel Kilduff told me by phone Monday.
Her school “isn’t an exception to that,” she said. Chapman added that racial isolation in schools is “a reality in San Francisco.” And while it is a priority of the school district to combat that racial isolation, “it’s a priority of ours as well.”
School board members weren’t warmed by their words. Rachel Norton, a long-time San Francisco school board member, penned a letter to the state school board lambasting New School’s “lopsided demographics.”
“Based on all achievement data available to the Board of Education, San Francisco Unified is demonstrably serving white, middle-income students well across our district schools, and there is absolutely no data to suggest that New School is providing innovative or superior quality of education to the vast majority of students it is serving,” Norton wrote. “There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that New School is making changes to their recruitment or engagement strategies to shift their current pattern of enrollment.”
Not every state education board member agreed with the local board. After a particularly moving speech by a young student of New School who identified as nonbinary, board member Ting Lan Sun noted there are some measurements of diversity besides economics and ethnicity that the state doesn’t track.
“There are other types of diversity,” Sun said. “I was very impressed with the student who came up here, the nonbinary student. There are LGBTQ students who choose small schools because they are safe.”
Wendy Conway, a parent of two children at New School, told the state board “you can be underserved even if you’re white.”
Her son has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, she said publicly, and needs the “customized learning, social-emotional learning” that he receives at New School, which lets him “bring his whole self to the school where he’s accepted and valued.”
A young third-grader whose first name is Alee’ah walked up to the microphone and, flanked by her parents, told the state board that New School is “a warm and welcoming school.” It was definitely an “awwww” moment, as she adjusted her oversized glasses and pleaded for her school. And yes, she was a student of color.
But also speaking was local school board member Alison Collins, one of the few to publicly speak against New School’s expansion in Sacramento that day after a sea-tide of adorable elementary-age children defending their institution.
“What is very concerning to me is when we’re hearing all this language about white dominance, we’re seeing they’re collectively exercising their political power to displace students that do not have the power and the resources to be here today,” Collins said.
The students of Potretro Hill, of nearby middle schools in nearby neighborhoods, weren’t organized to speak on their own behalf, she said. Those students have a voice in the San Francisco school board, but at the state level, which has overturned at least three other decisions the SF Board of Education has made about charter schools, a haul up to Sacramento is a long and unlikely trip.
“By moving the discussion to this board room here, we’re effectively removing their voice,” Collins said.
After the state mandate to diversify New School, however, perhaps some of those students will finally gain a seat at the table.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.