By Yvette tenBerge
The strength of the Sherman Heights community lies in its ability to unite and fight for the rights of its children, but a two-month-long, administration-backed movement to stop Sherman Elementary School from converting into a science and technology-focused charter school appears, at least on paper, to be tearing the community apart.
On March 5, the San Diego Unified School District’s (SDUSD) legal office received a proposal from the Sherman Charter Committee, a group of teachers and staff leading a petition that will grant them the opportunity to succeed where the district has failed.
More than 50 percent of the tenured teachers at Sherman Elementary, located at 450 24th Street, signed their names to a petition that, if passed, will turn one of the district’s lowest-performing schools on state mandated tests, into The Sherman Science and Technology Charter School (SSTCS), a learning center whose curriculum, techniques and textbooks are based on California State Standards, a rigorous set of standards to which all California students are now held and ones on which they are tested annually.
Within the past two months, though, an opposition movement has ripped through the streets of this Southeast San Diego neighborhood. Community members report that a small group of teachers and administrators, including the current principal and two vice-principals, have been leading a campaign that appears to be gaining momentum but that also appears to be based on false information.
Ramona Rodriguez, 60, has a grandson who currently attends Sherman Elementary, and her two grown children graduated from the school, as well. She knows charter schools well because her other two grandchildren have improved dramatically since attending King Chavez Academy, a nearby charter school. Her smile fades as she describes the opposition campaign to Sherman’s charter conversion.
“About three or four weeks ago there was a woman giving out fliers at Sherman. She was a parent, and the fliers said things against the charter school. I asked her if she knew what a charter school was, and she said ‘No,’” says Ms. Rodriguez, explaining that many parents who have been asked to hand out anti-charter fliers do not even have a basic understanding of what a charter school is. “She told me that she was handing them out because the administration asked her to give them out.”
Since the nation’s first charter school opened its doors in 1992, more than 2,400 other such schools have joined the ranks. These charter schools are public schools that come into existence through a contract with either a state agency or a local school board. This contract, called a charter, establishes a framework within which the school must operate.
Although a charter gives a school the power to oversee its own operation and frees the school from regulations that other public schools must follow, the level of accountability that these schools face is high. They are responsible for achieving the goals originally outlined in the charter, and they must improve student performance.
Flerida Lozaya, 30, has four children who currently attend Sherman Elementary School. She is among the parents who are actively campaigning for the charter school, and feels that her children will benefit from a curriculum that offers technology and focuses on more than just “math and reading.”
“I have been collecting signatures of those parents who want to pre-register their kids for the charter school. I find that people have been telling parents that the school will be private and that they will have to pay,” says Ms. Lozaya, who states that this is just one of the “lies” that the opposition has used to get people to sign an informal petition against the charter. “I ask them, ‘I have four children; do you think I would want this if I had to pay?’; That’s when these parents finally start to believe me.”
In less than one week’s time and as of May 6, parents like Ms. Lozaya have already pre-registered 371 children in the area for the new charter school.
Although the rules for a conversion charter, a charter school that is created from an already existing school rather than one that is started from scratch, only require the submission of one petition proving that more than 50 percent of the tenured teachers at the school support the change, parental support is a factor in the district’s consideration process.
In an effort to thwart the pro-charter school movement, two petitions have been turned into the district by a vice-principal and Sherman’s PTA president.
A May report that was prepared by Jose Gonzales, Assistant General Counsel for the district which will be presented to the board on May 14, states that the signatures on these documents “include parents of approximately 423 children”- or more than 50 percent of the children who currently attend Sherman. The report also dedicates many paragraphs to the calculation of the number of students from surrounding areas who will be eligible to attend. Based on these figures they recommend that the board vote not to approve the charter since “actual enrollment for Sherman will more likely be no more than 416” compared to 875 students that are currently enrolled.
An analysis of these signatures, though, shows foul play. The district is taking seriously a petition that includes: signatures of children, signatures of students in junior high school, a number of signatures that have been written in the same hand, signatures of administrators including a vice-principal at Sherman who signed both her married and maiden names and used a false address, the signatures of a number of people living outside of the Sherman Heights boundaries, and even the signatures of a deceased woman and one who is incarcerated.
When asked what the district does to ensure the validity of such anti-charter petitions, Mr. Gonzales states that those organizing the opposition are asked for “verification” that the persons signing have children who attend the school in question in the form of a “written statement.”
The district was unable to provide a copy of such a letter, but pointed to revised wording at the heading of the second anti-charter petition as the required verification.
If the poor quality of the support that the opponents of the charter school have gathered is not damaging enough to their own case, the heading at the top of the first and thickest petition confirms Ms. Lozaya’s statement that those against the charter school have gathered signatures based on false information.
This petition states: “We want Sherman Elementary School to remain a public school. We do not want Sherman Elementary School to become a Charter School” in both English and Spanish. Since charter schools are free, public schools that are still tied to the district, promoting the idea that Sherman as a charter school would be a private institution has scared many parents into believing they may have to pay to get their children educated.
As of the end of April, this petition consisted of 24 pages and 326 signatures. Thirty seven of these signatures have no addresses and no phone numbers; 57 have no addresses; 50 are out of area; 16 are staff signatures (only a few of whom have children at Sherman); 79 are signatures from community members, such as senior citizens who most likely do not have children attending Sherman; 28 are signatures of children and teens, and only 59 are parents with children who attend Sherman Elementary.
The second petition against the charter school does not make any claim that the new school will not be a public school, and states in both English and Spanish that the 107 people who have signed are parents of “a student who is or will be” attending Sherman Elementary. It also states that the parents will “request from the district a transfer to another school site should Sherman become a charter school.”
Claudia Alcaraz, 27, has a daughter who is currently a second grader at Sherman Elementary. She has come across many parents in the community who are both for and against the charter, but has found that many who are against it were told that they would either have to pay to send their children or that there would not be room for their child in the new school. She also states that many who signed the second petition were asked to put their signatures on a piece of paper with no heading.
“Many didn’t know what they were signing. They were only asked if they were ‘for’ the charter or ‘against’ it. The list they were asked to sign didn’t have any explanation of what they were signing, it only had numbers down the side,” says Ms. Alcaraz, who confirms that there were people trying to gather signatures for the petition in the produce and meat sections of the most popular markets in the area over the weekend, as well as by going door-to-door.
Questionable petitions are not the only things falling from the sky. The Sherman Charter Committee confirms that large, fluorescent pink posters and fliers calling Superintendent Bersin a “Racist,” Principal Valerie Voss a “Liar,” and referring to two of the Hispanic anti-charter teachers as traitors to the Mexican community, recently appeared stapled to telephone poles around the school.
Although they are clearly worried that people will try and pin the racist attacks on them, a parent points out that the posters were made on the same colored paper that the school’s administration uses to send home parent notices, and many of their anti-charter fliers were printed on this same colored paper, as well.
The administration at Sherman Elementary did not respond to La Prensa San Diego’s calls regarding questions about the anti-charter movement or their signatures on the petitions against the new charter school.
When asked about the ethics behind administrators signing petitions that should be community and parent-based, Mr. Gonzales replied that the two petitions “are not official petitions, just statements of opposition” and that “anyone is free to object.” He agreed, though, that the signers should be living.
Estella Rubalcaba Klink, 54, has been the Director of the Sherman Heights Community Center for five years and has worked as a community organizer and educator in the community since 1980. Within the past two months Ms. Klink has been inundated with questions from confused parents. In order to avoid the conflict, some express the desire to take their children out of the school completely, and others complain of stress-related ailments.
“I am the director of a community center, and if one of my staff is behaving in an unethical manner and I turn a blind eye, it’s just as much my fault. I am appalled that any person in authority would abuse their position by strategically planning to be unethical and by spreading lies to the parents of the children they serve,” says Ms. Klink, who feels that the district, itself, should step in and set the record straight. “To confuse, deny and abuse a very simple and beautiful Latino community by opposing something that has the great potential of benefiting its children is unacceptable.”