By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
John York, Sacramento City Teachers Association.
In 2003, Sacramento High School became St. Hope Charter High School. At that time Kevin Johnson, a former basketball star with the Phoenix Suns, raised millions of dollars from several corporate foundations to make the conversion happen at his alma mater, including $3 million from the Gates Foundation and more than $1 million from the Walton Family Foundation.
Today, enrollment is dwindling and the school is in its third year of Program Improvement. It received a bronze medal from U.S. News for raising test scores, going from 719 to 731 on the API from 2008 to 2009, but has received criticism for "counseling out" students who are not successful. Some say the college-prep school is intent on only serving motivated students. Those who cause trouble are "shipped out" to other schools, say critics.
Johnson is now mayor of Sacramento, and St. Hope operates several charters in Sacramento. During the past year there was a scandal over allegations that the nonprofit association Johnson founded used federal money to pay volunteers for jobs including political activities, running personal errands and washing Johnson's car. The terms of the settlement stated that St. Hope Academy must repay nearly $424,000 in return for the government's lifting its suspension on future federal grants. But corruption allegations are only part of the problem.
"The community is still angry about the closure of Sacramento High School because it was a comprehensive high school that offered students a broad selection of electives, sports and extracurricular activities," says Linda Tuttle, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA). "The charter school is not a comprehensive high school. And it's a bad state of affairs when a school can pick and choose its own students."
Johnson recently started a new nonprofit, Stand Up for Sacramento Schools, funded in part with seed money from the Broad Foundation, to support new charter schools and create a report card to "grade" Sacramento schools.
The district's superintendent, Jonathan Raymond, was trained at The Broad Center's executive management training program and had no previous experience in education. Tuttle says it's been difficult to work with the top-down superintendent. After months of negotiations, SCTA recently settled with the district, and members accepted pay cuts and concessions to keep schools open.
"Our new superintendent smiles a lot. But it's like an invisible wall has gone up and the type of access we have always had is gone, after years of developing a good working relationship with the district. He absolutely views schools as a business - and we are feeling that."
Sacramento schools are feeling a lack of academic freedom from millions of dollars donated by the Packard Foundation to pay for scripted learning. And the creation of small high schools with a $4 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2002 hasn't worked out ideally. Genesis High School will be closed, and others are struggling to keep up enrollment. Large, comprehensive high schools were also divided into small learning communities (SLCs) with Gates money, which has been a mixed bag, say SCTA members.
When John York came to teach at Kennedy High School, he was pleased to find strong camaraderie and support among colleagues in the English Department. "I was a new teacher, and if I had any questions, I could walk out in the hallway and find 100 years of experience on my floor from veteran teachers," he recalls.
Teachers had been collaborating on ways to close the achievement gap with a new WASC plan (Western Association of Schools and Colleges' accreditation program) and were readying for implementation. But the new principal called a meeting to inform them that the Gates plan would be going into effect instead.
"It came down as a mandate," recalls York, who was put into the Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) SLC. "Basically, we were told: This is what you're going to do."
Instead of having English teachers on the same floor, they were divided up to be with their SLCs, and it became difficult to collaborate. For a while they tried to schedule meetings, says York, but there were so many SLC meetings that subject matter collaboration fizzled out. Class sizes were large, since there were fewer teachers per subject, and scheduling problems were rampant.
All SLCs are considered equal, but some are more equal than others. Motivated students enroll in the PACE (Program in America and California Exploration) program with a mandatory summer school component at CSU Sacramento and AP classes. To the dismay of teachers in other SLCs, a disproportionate amount of funding also goes to PACE.
"It put a real rift in the school because things are unequal," says York. "In VAPA, we were not getting any money to support our very good band or choir."
The Gates grant money has dried up, the SLCs are still in place, and many of them are scraping by without adequate support.
"Bill Gates has lots of money and decided we need better schools," adds York. "I agree with him on that. But I don't know why he thought he knew how to do it or why he thought small learning communities were a good idea. There had been no studies to see if they actually worked, but he poured millions of dollars into this. If you ask me, the money could have been spent in much better ways for smaller class sizes, books and tutoring."
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