Some ink is starting to spill concerning the recent closure of two Oakland charter schools, Castlemont Junior Academy and Castlemont Primary Academy, assessing what happened, who is to blame, and what should be done. But before we get our chonies too twisted, let’s take a look at what really happened, at least from one perspective.
I worked some on the original school design and have followed the developments closely. Many know it better, so I am open to hearing more, but here is “the official story” and then my own analysis.
The official story
The East Bay Express has provided the most coverage thus far, here is their story
When nonprofit Youth Uprising opened two new Oakland charter schools in 2015, they were hailed as anchors of a “cradle-to-college” education pipeline serving families in a troubled deep east neighborhood. Private donors, and even the state of California, showered the schools with grant money. Parents and community leaders praised the charters.
But both schools failed to enroll enough students and quickly ran out of money. One, Castlemont Junior Academy, was shut down entirely in 2016. The other, Castlemont Primary Academy, is currently being merged into a district-run public school.
These closures have not come without costs. Firstly, anytime a student moves schools involuntarily, there is a cost to their learning. But there are also a set of financial costs that the District may have to bear.
Again from the Express,
Now, according to Oakland Unified School District officials, taking on the students will cost the district as much as several hundred-thousand dollars.
And the operator of both charters, the Castlemont Community Transformation Schools (CCTS) organization, still owes the district at least $22,101 in unpaid rent — at the same time OUSD is facing a $14 million budget shortfall.
A couple of the school board members have expressed surprise and dismay, and are calling for increased oversight and transparency.
School-board directors Gonzales and Torres questioned why they were kept out of the loop. “Parker [Elementary] is in my district,” Gonzales said. “All I got a letter that said it’ll be a seamless transition to merge the schools.”…
Gonzales said the issue isn’t about the risk, but rather the costs — and the fact that school-board members are asked to constantly approve new charters, but then are kept in the dark when they fail.
“They were supposed to be able to run that school all year with the money they got from the state,” Gonzales said. “What happened to all that money? The public has a right to know.”
Angels rush in where fools fear to tread
Folks who live and work in the community see the lost lives of too many of our children, and we live with an intense urgency to do something. Every year that we don’t do something another year is lost for many children. When I worked with Youth Uprising on the charters the sense of urgency hung in the air, like a stale poisonous smoke.
There is a push to do it now, which I completely understand. The unknown risk of doing it now versus the known risk in not doing it now. For me it was maybe too much too fast, opening two schools at the same time, serving very high needs kids and not having a known staff. As I remember the schools were somewhat late in the hiring cycle and struggled to find and keep high quality experienced staff from the beginning.
School funding, cuts and the school death spiral
Enrollment also presented two challenges. First, the schools didn’t hit their overall numbers. Second, by advertising as full service schools they attracted very high needs students. I know there is this narrative (which is sometimes true) around charters attracting higher achieving students, but there is another dynamic, where schools can promise high supports and attract parents with very high needs students.
When I visited the middle school, half of the students had special needs. And in California, you really don’t get the resources to serve high needs students. Those kids need strong experienced teachers and robust supports, and in a first year charter, they just didn’t get really get that, despite best efforts.
Charter schools can go into a death spiral. Funding is driven by enrollment. So without students you lose funding, so you need to cut the budget meaning cutting staffing or programs, which makes the school less attractive to families, so they leave, funding goes down even more, so you need to cut more, etc.
Meanwhile, there are a set of ongoing stable major costs (facilities, core staffing), so you can’t really cut your way out of the death spiral. Cutting costs may just accelerate it, as families see the program receding and choose to leave the school at a faster pace.
When a charter school closes
Recently, both the CCTS schools surrendered their charters, sending student back into the system or to other charters.
The Express captured the two contrasting perspectives on it this way,
Backers of the folded schools say their rocky road illustrates how difficult it is to serve primarily Black youth using the charter model. Others say the episode is emblematic of a district that has allowed charters to expand too fast, and that there’s not enough oversight and accountability.
As someone who provided some help in planning the schools, visited them and has known many of the players and have cared about those kids and watched the drama unfold, the truth as always is somewhere in between, though I do have some commentary and quibbles.
First, if the school owes the district money it should pay its debts. There were a series of backers who got it off the ground, they should contribute to setting the books straight with OUSD if need be. That only seems fair. Not that the $22,000 owed will solve the District’s $25 million dollar deficit. But whatever the number, it should get zeroed out.
However, it is a little peculiar to hear OUSD, which is bleeding students, with its own under-enrollment problem, complaining about a plan to re-enroll a set of charter students en masse into a district school.
Parker Elementary is doing a great job. Those kids will be well served there, and moving the students alongside a set of staff members, as a group, will provide some continuity for the kids.
And let’s be clear here, the principal at Parker isn’t a chump. When faced with taking these students in, he demanded resources as part of the deal. And he got them, as described below.
So yes, there are costs associated with taking in students mid-year, the size of which and net impact are disputed, but I would say there are also benefits. As the Express reported,
Gonzales estimated that it is likely to set OUSD back more than $300,000, because it will cost an extra $3,925 to take on each new student at Parker Elementary through the end of the year.
Simmons and Thomas (trustees at CCTS) disagree. They claim the short-term cost is actually about $100,000, and that Parker Elementary will also get four full-time, and one half-time, CCTS staffers, who are already grant-funded. They claim the ultimate cost to the district will net out to zero.
I would have to see the math to analyze this. But again this should be a long term boost to enrollment, for OUSD, which should more than cover any deficit from the partial year of service, over time.
It’s also a bit strange to hear that some trustees were unaware of this situation. The board chair of OUSD was on the Board of CCTS alongside a high level OUSD staff member. I personally had heard about the schools’ challenges several times, I don’t think there was any secret, or conspiracy of silence.
And I assume that CCTS follows the Brown Act Open Meeting Law and Public Records Act, so any OUSD director or member of the public could have attended a board meeting or reviewed board documents. And if they wonder where the money is, any charter school worth its salt should produce the financials. You should be able to clearly see where money went.
An all too familiar story
The actual story doesn’t have much intrigue and will probably sound familiar; ambitious educational plans for underserved students, lower enrollment than the budgets assumed alongside fixed costs, budget deficits, cuts, consolidation by closing the middle school, declining services, more cuts…
Sound familiar. If it doesn’t yet, it likely will as OUSD stares down a somewhat similar budget challenge. Parts of it probably sound very familiar to the Sankofa parents. Who recently had their OUSD middle school “consolidated” with those students enrolling at other schools mid-year.
The implications of CCTS for charter oversight
Some charter schools will close. When they can’t attract enough students, balance the books or deliver the program they promised. They close. There is a cost to families when this happens. And a cost in blood, sweat, and tears to school staff, founders and the community.
In this case the families ended up at a really strong school, and that school got additional resources. It’s not an altogether happy ending, but this is how the charter system was written up. And indeed, as with Sankofa, it happens at district schools too.
And what would more oversight look like?
The OUSD Board president was on the Board of CCTS and so was a high level OUSD staff member. They joined after challenges started, in an effort to help, but they knew. And I am sure the charter office was getting financial reports and knew as well, a lot of people knew. And anyone could have found out by just asking the school or school’s board. More “oversight” is not really the answer here.
Urgency versus capacity
One area that could be looked at is the green lighting for school openings even if a charter is approved. I admittedly don’t really know the law in this area in CA, but I know the logic.
As a guy who incubates charter schools and works with startups, there are a few key things you need to startup strong; an (experienced) high quality school leader, quality teachers that match the needs of your students, sufficient enrollment/funding, a facility, a viable curriculum and education program etc. And the heavier the lift in terms of the challenges of your student body, the more stable each of those areas needs to be.
Many times in my work with new school we are telling our teams to wait a year and many times they want to charge ahead. So maybe as schools startup, there is more deliberate look at their capacity to open successfully, by checking in on some of these key areas, with real milestones. Ideally the schools, funders, and the authorizer are in a real partnership to serve students and work together for success, which may entail some hard conversations. I worry about overreach, but I also worry about schools not really being ready.
In the short term, there are no winners when a school closes.
“Oakland to a Fault”
A Sister spoke at a recent Board meeting and described herself as, ”Oakland to the core, Oakland to a fault” And that is kind of how I see CCTS. They feel the need and they wanted to do everything at once; elementary and middle school, a 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. program, universal counseling, free Summer school, a real full service program for our most challenged students, those often facing trauma and multi-generational poverty.
They wrote a check that our kids deserve, that their bankbook could not keep.
Angels rush in where fools fear to tread.
But, I guess given the choice, I prefer to rush in with the angels alongside folks like CCTS, rather than sit on the sidelines, with the fools, who just watch and criticize, while a daily toll is taken on our youth.