Enrollment plagues S.F. school

After moving three times in its first three years, one of San Francisco’s charter schools is considering calling it quits due to declining enrollment.

The Cross Cultural Environmental Leadership Academy, also known as XCEL, began in 1995 as an after-school program that encouraged minority students to learn about environmental issues. Its founders turned XCEL into a full-time charter high school, which opened in the fall of 2003 with a class of 85 ninth-grade students.

Although another class level was added each year, the school currently only serves about 90 students total. And with only about a dozen students confirmed to enroll in next year’s freshmen class, school officials are considering shutting the school down.

“We’re a small school, but to operate responsibly and provide a quality program we need a critical mass,” XCEL Executive Director Cristina Valdez said, adding that the school still needs another 50 students to remain financially viable.

XCEL’s struggles mirror the school district. Faced with a drop in students in the past several decades, the Board of Education has voted in the past two years to close six schools and merge four schools into two sites, in order to make up for lost state-per-pupil revenue.

Most charter schools, however, haven’t struggled to attract students, and some school board members have even blamed them for drawing students away from the district’s conventional high schools. Although technically district schools, San Francisco’s charter schools are independently run, much like private schools — although they receive state per-pupil funding in order to provide a tuition-free education.

There are five charter high schools within the district that enroll nearly 7 percent of San Francisco 19,000-plus public high school students.

XCEL parent Toni Moran said she is concerned about the school’s possible closure, because her son went from “D’s and C-minuses to A’s and B’s” after leaving San Francisco’s 2,000-student Galileo High School and enrolling in the smaller high school. She said her son also has told her he feels safer at XCEL; he was once assaulted and threatened with a knife at Galileo.

Generally, the school serves students who struggled academically in other schools, said Valdez, who noted that although the school’s overall state ranking, based on standardized test scores, is lower than the school district’s, it is showing improvement each year.

Victoria Li, the school district’s deputy counsel, said many charter schools “don’t realize how difficult it is to operate a school” because they have to not only handle the school curriculum, but also the finances, labor needs, facility issues and other needs.

beslinger@examiner.com

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