Equity-based admissions at this Oakland charter school

A guest post from Families in Action

Lighthouse Community Charter School is in high demand. With a limited number of seats, new families often have to wait years before they really do “win the lottery” and gain admission to one of the top performing schools in East Oakland. 

“There’s word of mouth in the community that Lighthouse and Lodestar really handled their work during distance learning,” said Rich Harrison, Lighthouse’s CEO. “But there’s only so many seats we can add, realistically.”

The challenge for Harrison and the Lighthouse staff is not how to attract families — the word is out and there are more families who want in than there are available seats. While public school enrollment is dropping across the state, Lighthouse has seen a 20 percent increase in applications this year. (“It speaks to our work during distance learning,” Harrison said. “Parent satisfaction has been high, hovering above 80 percent across our schools.” 

What Lighthouse is instead changing is how it enrolls students, with an equitable policy where the student population of its schools, Lighthouse and Lodestar, really reflect that of their neighborhoods. 

“The students that we’re targeting are students who are from the neighborhoods and the subgroups who are most at risk,” said Karen Fee, Lighthouse’s Director of Development.  For Lighthouse, this specifically means increasing the number of African American students, and unhoused students, enrolled at the schools.

“There is this fundamental question,” Harrison said. “‘Do you serve all students equitably?’”

Lighthouse chose to do something and not just talk about equity. During its charter renewal process last year, (Lighthouse was renewed unanimously for five years) Lighthouse made a material revision to its charter to better meet the needs of unhoused families, and increase the number of African American students at its schools.

Making the change, though, is hardly straightforward. Contrary to the myth that charter schools actively select students they enroll, a “public random drawing” (AKA lottery) is mandated by state education code
On top of that, Lighthouse already receives five applications for every student it admits. For a family applying for the first time (without the advantage of the sibling preference component of the enrollment policy), chances of getting in are slim.

With few seats to offer, and rules preventing it from just offering those seats to unsheltered students and African American students, making that enrollment change would be a challenge for any school. Not to mention being a year into a pandemic that closed down in-person instruction and made recruiting new students that much harder. 
Lighthouse currently has a few dozen students who fall under the McKinney-Vento Act, and the pandemic has made it especially hard to recruit more unhoused students. “We’re going to pound the pavement more” when health regulations allow, Harrison said, adding that “we can meet that need,” for unhoused families seeking admission. 

The policy change not only gives unsheltered students preference in the lottery but anytime they apply. ”Let’s say a family had some unforeseen financial issues and experienced being unsheltered in May or June, and they apply to our school,” Harrison said. “They would move up on the waitlist.”

Harrison said Lighthouse is ready to do what it takes to serve unhoused families, including “investing in infrastructure upgrades” like installing washing machines and dryers at schools, and creating food pantries. “Those are commitments we’re ready to take on and are designing around currently,” Harrison said. “We want to be responsive to the needs in Oakland.”

During the material revision process with OUSD, Harrison said there was some pushing from board members to enroll more African American students. In discussing how to make that happen, the Lighthouse leadership team found that with the current lottery, African Americans would need to make up 40 percent of the pool of applicants to increase the two schools’ percentage of African American students by even a couple percentage points. 

Harrison said that after the charter renewal process, he spoke with some current Lighthouse and Lodestar African American families about how the schools could be more inclusive for African American families. 

“They told me they appreciated me asking the question, but they had tried for three years to get into this school,” Harrison said. 
He said Lighthouse is discussing how to give those families more of an advantage so their chances increase each year. 
“It made me realize families are beating down the door trying to get into this school,” he said, “all the time.”

The work of FIA is led by families and students! We are building a citywide movement for quality schools through parent and student leadership, and reclaiming the narrative about public education so Black and Brown parent and youth voices are heard. Join us: https://www.fiaoakland.org/get-involved-1
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