About a thousand students will likely be forced to find a new school this fall after the State Board of Education declined to renew the charters for the four Thrive charter schools.
The San Diego-based charter school network needed to get its charter renewed from the state to continue operating next school year, after the San Diego Unified School Board voted unanimously last year to deny Thrive’s renewal.
Charter schools are independently-run public schools, but their charters are licenses to operate which must be renewed every five years by the school district where they’re located. If not they can appeal to the State Board of Education.
The State Board voted 4-to-2 Thursday to deny Thrive’s renewal, largely because of Thrive’s low state test scores. Linda Darling-Hammond, the state board president, was the lone abstention.
The vote to non-renew technically did not carry because the state board needs six votes to pass any motion, according to state law. The State Board currently has three vacancies and one board member was not present for Thursday’s votes.
Next, the State Board considered approving Thrive’s renewal under the conditions that Thrive limit its enrollment; receive an independent evaluation of its academics, staff and leadership, and develop an improvement plan.
But that motion only got a 2-to-4 vote, so it did not go through either.
Therefore, because the State Board failed to take any action Thursday, San Diego Unified’s decision stands, meaning Thrive’s charter will not be renewed and the school will likely close at the end of this school year.
Nicole Assisi, founder and CEO of Thrive, said in a statement that she is “beyond disappointed” that the State Board “chose not to listen” to the testimony of Thrive’s families, but she is considering options that would allow Thrive to continue educating its students. She would not yet elaborate on what those options are.
“I am absolutely devastated by today’s decision but am also more determined than ever to ensure that every one of our nearly 1,000 students continues on the positive trajectory they have started,” Assisi said.
Thrive can choose to sue about the denial of its renewal, because the State Board did not take any action, according to a California Department of Education official.
Some state board members said they believe Thrive has been serving a need for many students, but the state law ties their hands.
Darling-Hammond, a nationally recognized expert in education equity, said the Thrive renewal process has revealed flaws in the way California's law requires the State Board and school districts to evaluate charter schools.
“We need to develop new law and process. We have a very narrow criterion,” Darling-Hammond said.
“I am coming away with all of those lessons and a heart full of concern,” she said, before abstaining from the vote to deny Thrive’s renewal.
The state education department had advised the State Board to deny Thrive’s charter because Thrive’s state test scores have declined every year since it opened in 2014. Last year, only 31 percent of Thrive students who took state tests met or exceeded state standards in English, while 19 percent did so in math.
But Thrive’s supporters say it’s unfair to judge Thrive primarily on those scores, because the school network has added hundreds of new students each year, most of whom came to Thrive already years behind their peers in academics because they had been failed by other public schools.
Thrive supporters also say the state testing numbers represent the performance of only about 13 percent of Thrive’s students, since only students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 take state tests.
Thrive serves kindergarten through 11th grade in four campuses in San Diego.
Thrive’s internal student data, based on alternative standardized tests, show academic growth for all of its student groups, Assisi said.
Supporters argued that Thrive is effectively being punished for being a desirable alternative to other public schools, especially with students who have been disadvantaged by their old schools.
Dozens of parents, teachers and students spoke in support of Thrive. Many of the parents reported that their children were bullied or written off by teachers at other public schools before coming to Thrive, where they love school.
“I wish that the Board of Education would realize that, when you have 1,000 people not choose their local public school, listen to the thousand people,” Thrive parent Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra said.
“It’s been absolutely disheartening. We feel powerless, because I think that the statistics aren’t probably the whole story.”
Supporters also pointed out that 19 district and charter schools within San Diego Unified’s boundaries have been officially identified by the state as low-performing. Thrive is not one of them.
The State Board members said they were sympathetic to the parents and students who spoke of how much Thrive has helped them. But state law says charter schools must, above all, be evaluated based on how well they perform on state tests compared to similar public schools.
“This is emotional. This is really hard. It sounds to me like Thrive is meeting the needs of kids that weren’t met in other places,” State Board Member Ilene Straus said.
“And yet, I am really concerned about what we are legally required to do under the current law with the multiple measures. I think we’re faced with a real dilemma with the guidelines that are currently before us.”
Darling-Hammond said California needs to change its laws so that public schools are evaluated more holistically and based on factors other than just state test scores, such as students’ social-emotional health.
“We need better ways to look at growth and gains,” she said.
Since the fall, an Oakland-based group that has been critical of charter schools, In the Public Interest, and the San Diego Unified teacher’s union have led a push to close Thrive, where teachers are not unionized.
San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten traveled to Sacramento Thursday to speak against Thrive’s renewal.
“Thrive has failed to support our most vulnerable students,” Marten told the State Board. an Diego Unified has been commended for supporting Hispanic and African-American students
Marten said the district will take “extraordinary steps" to help Thrive parents enroll at a district school, including giving them priority placement in schools with open seats.
But several Thrive parents said they have vowed to avoid San Diego Unified district schools because of previous bad experiences there.
Pardo-Guerra said the charter schools he is interested in have long waiting lists and the high-performing, high-demand charter schools don’t have as diverse a student body as Thrive.
Peri Lynn Turnbull, a Thrive parent and president of the Thrive Education Foundation, said she is not sure where she else besides Thrive she will enroll her son, Jacob, an eighth-grader who has autism.
When Jacob first started attending Thrive, he was three years behind his peers,Turnbull said. Turnbull said she feared he might never attend college or graduate high school, because he was struggling academically and socially.
Now, Jacob is testing on grade level, she said, which means his teachers helped him accomplish six years of learning in three years. He has been elected school president, Turnbull said, and is “infinitely better” at socializing with his peers, keeping relationships and handling his emotions.
“It’s saved Jacob’s life. We really believe it. We don’t think he would’ve made it if he went to another school,” Turnbull said of Thrive.
What troubles Turnbull, she said, is the idea that her bringing Jacob — who was initially a failing student — to Thrive likely hurt the school’s scores. If parents like her had brought their other high-performing children, it could have been a different story, Turnbull said.
“It’s his scores that are hurting the renewal process, which is mortifying because [Thrive] did everything we asked of them,” Turnbull said. “All the parents like me, we brought a child to the school who was struggling.”
The State Board generally has followed the education department’s recommendations and has mostly voted in charter schools’ favor. The board has approved the establishment or renewal of 15 charter school petitions since January 2018, according to state board meeting minutes. It has denied only five.