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A Fruitvale charter school is facing closure at the end of this school year in what could be the first local test of Assembly Bill 1505, a new state law that created standards for local districts evaluating charter school petitions.
Aspire ERES Academy is one of seven schools that are part of the Aspire Public Schools network in the Bay Area: five in East Oakland, one in North Oakland, and one in Richmond. Located in a cramped former church building on Courtland Avenue, Aspire ERES is asking Oakland Unified School District for permission to increase its enrollment from 237 to 550 students.
In 2009, Aspire Public Schools took over the building previously occupied by Dolores Huerta Learning Academy, an elementary charter school that closed that year, to open Aspire ERES.
“More than 11 years ago, parents of Dolores Huerta approached Aspire and asked us to take over a school that was failing to meet the needs of the community and students,” said Nicole Williams Browning, superintendent of Aspire’s Bay Area region, at a public hearing last month. “We began at our current location with the understanding that we would work with OUSD to find a new site address.”
The school has been searching for a suitable building for its students for several years, and came close in 2018 when a deal to purchase land from the city to construct a new building was scuttled. In December, school leaders announced to its families that if their request to expand was denied, the school would close at the end of this school year.
The district’s office of charter schools released its judgment this week on the Aspire ERES request, recommending that the school board deny the enrollment expansion. In the recommendation, staff wrote that while the school has solid academic results and serves high numbers of low-income and English language learners relative to the district, it would undermine the existing academic programs in the community if it were to expand.
Charter schools are established by organizations or individuals who approach a local board of education to approve their charter—which outlines the school’s structure, including academics and enrollment—to create a new school. While the school is managed by its own board, school leaders still have to ask the institution that approved its charter (in this case, Oakland Unified School District) for permission to make significant changes, like increasing or decreasing enrollment, changing the academic focus, adding new grade levels, or changing locations.
Assembly Bill 1505, which went into effect on July 1, gives school districts specific standards for approving or denying new charters, revisions, and renewals. Districts like OUSD are now allowed to consider financial and academic impacts of approving a new charter school or expanding an existing one. In Oakland, which has 45 charter schools, many critics point to their proliferation as undermining the financial stability of the district, since districts receive funding from the state based on their attendance numbers. As enrollment in charter schools increases and enrollment in district-run schools decreases, OUSD receives less funding.
In making recommendations for enrollment increases, OUSD’s office of charter schools considers recent demand for the school, whether the expansion will serve the entire community, and the fiscal impacts of that increased enrollment.
In its report on the Aspire ERES expansion request, the office wrote: “Over the course of the next four years, it is likely that a neighboring school could see a net decrease of 25 students, which is an estimated loss of $280,000 to the district,” which could lead to lost programming or staff positions at that school to support higher needs students. Staff also analyzed the percentage of families that accepted offers to enroll in the school to gauge demand, and pointed out that the number of families living in the Fruitvale area and enrolling in nearby public schools has decreased.
Aspire’s proposal would increase the school’s enrollment by 60 to 80 students each year over the next four years until reaching 550 students. Opened in 2009, Aspire ERES serves a majority low-income, Latino population in transitional kindergarten to eighth grade. Half of its students are English learners.
“This is a very emotional time for everyone, especially for students who are going to have to break ties with their friends, community, and teachers,” said Lucy Paredes, a mom of three boys who attend the school. “Having to think about rebuilding all of that is a very stressful situation for everyone to be in.”
According to Aspire ERES Principal Jenna Ogier-Marangella, the current school site was never intended to be permanent.
“Because of the condition of this rented church facility, it had to be temporary. It’s old, it wasn’t meant to be a school to house somewhere between 235 to 250 kids,” Ogier-Marangella said. “For the past 12 years, Aspire has literally looked everywhere.”
The building floods when it rains, the sewage system overflows, it has tiny classrooms, and little play space for students, Ogier-Marangella said. She added that their plan this year was to ask for the increase in enrollment, and then work with OUSD to find suitable space to accommodate the new students through Proposition 39, a California law that requires school districts to offer facilities to charter schools in their district. OUSD was sued in 2016 for violating Prop 39 and reached a settlement last year.
In 2018, Aspire Public Schools worked with the city of Oakland to identify and purchase an empty, city-owned parcel of land on Derby Avenue between International Boulevard and East 15th Street. The school board at the time also approved Aspire ERES’s request to expand and build a new facility in 2018, with funds from a state grant. However, the land deal with the city raised questions about whether the city had been transparent in its process to collect proposals from developers, and whether it was practical for the school to be located a few blocks away from two other schools, International Community School and Think College Now. Community members spoke out against the deal in late 2018, and it never came to a vote before the City Council, forcing Aspire to abandon its plans.
Over the past several years, Aspire ERES has also received Prop 39 offers to share space with other OUSD schools, but has never accepted them because they were too far away, or didn’t suit Aspire’s needs. This year, the school was offered 12 classrooms at Brookfield Elementary, which is about 3 miles away from Aspire ERES. The school has until March 1 to respond to the offer.
OUSD’s office of charter schools will present its recommendation at the Feb. 24 school board meeting, when the board will vote to approve or deny the petition. Aspire ERES leadership will have a chance to respond, but are not optimistic about the outcome.
“We are a community, high-quality school, and I can’t believe that it looks like closure’s going to happen,” principal Ogier-Marangella said. “The timing couldn’t be worse. In a global pandemic in a community that’s already been disproportionately impacted, now they’re having to try and find a new school.”