The new segregation

In Chico as elsewhere the charter-school movement is creating an educational divide

Illustration by Amane Kaneko

Behind this story:
This story was made possible by a New American Media education beat fellowship, and was produced by the CN&R and the bilingual online magazine ChicoSol. For more stories on this topic and a listing of public-school options in the Chico area, go to

Chico Country Day School’s classroom No. 22 was hopping on a spring morning, with 29 fourth-graders on the cusp of greatness. Regan had opened the world’s largest orphanage, Morgen had found a cure for malaria, and Alex was a “record-breaking lawyer.”

The charter-school students were completing an assignment that required they imagine themselves 30 years in the future as Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Each student was putting together an issue of the magazine honoring his or her future self.

One mile to the east, at Chico’s most diverse public school, Chapman Elementary teacher Kathy Naas’ students were on the sidewalk painting cardboard structures. They, too, were tackling a hands-on project, but theirs was a fourth-grade ritual, one performed for decades. Each student was building a model of a California mission he or she had selected and researched.

Both Chico Country and Chapman are public schools running on taxpayer dollars in south Chico. Their differences go beyond the matter of structure—Chapman is a traditional school—and illustrate how the charter movement may reshape public education by increasing segregation based on class, ethnicity and even ability.

Take a look at the numbers. At Chico Country, less than 1 percent of the student body is comprised of Latinos learning English as a second language. (There were five last spring, up from two the previous year.) The school serves free/reduced-price meals to 125 children (25 percent of its students qualify).

At Chapman Elementary, 52 percent of the students are Latino and Hmong children learning English as a second language. Federal guidelines qualify 92 percent of the students for subsidized meals. “For some of these kids, these are the two meals a day they get,” said Principal Ted Sullivan as he supervised breakfast on a spring morning.

The contrasts in class and culture at the two schools are at the heart of accusations that the charter movement contributes to segregation, and they’re at the heart of the charter-school divide in Chico. Throughout the Chico Unified School District, teachers and parents worry that charter schools are institutionalizing a two-tiered system by “skimming”—attracting students who are the best prepared and who have parents who can help in the classroom and in raising funds.

Chico Country doesn’t come close to matching the demographics of the Chico Unified School District, while Chapman, located in Chico’s lowest-income neighborhood, serves a disproportionately large number of the district’s English learners and disadvantaged students.

Alex Gordon was a “record-breaking lawyer” and Morgen Hopson had found a cure for malaria in the Time magazine project at Chico Country Day School.

Photo By Leslie Layton

Class and ethnic segregation were occurring in school districts long before charter schools appeared, but a UCLA study shows the charter movement worsening racial, ethnic and class segregation in most of the country. The UCLA study released last February shows that in Butte County, white students made up 81 percent of the 2008 charter-school population and only 67 percent of the traditional-school population.

“We found that charters were acting as havens for white students,” said Research Associate Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a co-author of the study at the School of Education’s Civil Rights Project. The study brands the charter movement a “civil rights failure,” in part because of disproportionate white-student enrollment in much of California.

The 1992 charter-school law was designed to foster innovation, choice and competition by giving the schools the freedom to operate much like private schools. But how competition and choice will improve education for the majority of Chico kids is unclear. Chico Unified serves 82 percent of the district’s students, including those who are most challenging and expensive—most disabled children, English-language learners and students with behavioral problems.

Probably most media-consuming Americans are by now familiar with the charter-school fairy tale—the inner-city school rescuing impoverished kids and opening doors to opportunity. But those schools aren’t the norm, and the charter movement, like any sweeping reform movement, is grounded in a mix of realities and myths.

Though charters serve only about 5 percent of the state’s public-school population, in Chico they serve about 18 percent. English-language learners are vastly under-represented at all but one of 10 Chico charters—Nord Country School.

I do worry that if the trend were to continue, taken to the illogical extreme, one could see where we would be Chico Unified EL [English learners]/Special Ed,” said Bob Feaster, CUSD assistant superintendent of human resources. “In [terms of] diverse groups, we’re kind of going backwards to the old, ’50s, ‘let’s have separate-but-equal.’ ”

Added CUSD Superintendent Kelly Staley: “But not equal.”

Staley believes charter schools can play an important role in public education, and Nord Country is an example. But she worries about what will happen “if the Ed Code does not become a level playing field.”

In a recent interview, Feaster and Staley discussed the inequities in the 1992 charter-school legislation that make it tough for traditional schools to compete with charters. Charter schools can disregard much of the state Education Code, sidestep union contracts and spend more of their funding any way they wish.

Most Chico charters promote a mission or philosophy attracting a particular demographic. A sophisticated parent can shop for a school that specializes in Montessori or Waldorf or sustainability. And it takes know-how; you won’t find any local agency offering a complete list of public-school options. (Chico Unified School District says it won’t advertise its competition.) You hear about them from newspaper, radio, television and movie-theater ads, as if schools were breakfast cereal.

For children of parents who don’t own a good car (for transportation), who don’t have the skill and knowledge to shop for a school, or who don’t have the will to cross cultural barriers, school choice is a myth.

Chico Country Day School (CCDS), the city’s largest charter, touts “Integrated Thematic Instruction”—themed, interdisciplinary education. But it also expects parents to volunteer 50 hours a year at the school, a requirement that undoubtedly influences who attends.

Fourth-grade teacher Susie Bower said the assignment tied in with a class theme of “citizen responsibilities.”

Photo By Leslie Layton

Teacher Susie Bower is Chico Country’s interdisciplinary teaching guru. She said she designed the Time magazine assignment to tie in with a class theme of “citizen responsibilities.” But the assignment also provided her students an opportunity to imagine themselves as leaders in a field of their choice.

Fourth-grader Regan paused to consider a reporter’s question. “I’ve learned that really, if you want, you can be whatever. … You can open a big orphanage…,” she said. Then, smiling coyly as if she knew she was about to utter a cliché, Regan added, “The sky’s the limit.”

Like most successful charter schools, Chico Country has mythic qualities. The school doles out available slots in a lottery that inevitably drives some parents to elation or tears. Its test scores reflect a strong curriculum and contribute to its reputation for academic rigor—even though it’s out-performed on standardized testing by a traditional public school, Shasta Elementary.

Chico Country parents chafe at the perception that their sky-is-the-limit school is exclusive. “I get a little defensive when I hear us called ‘privileged,’” said Shayne Law, president of the parent-teachers organization. “Everyone has the same option. You don’t see Mercedes in the parking lot.”

Yes, all Chico parents do have the option Law had—if they know how to enter the lottery and can volunteer. Preference is given to children of staff and siblings of students for 542 slots. Then, for about 28 remaining kindergarten slots, CCDS runs a lottery on a day that Principal Paul Weber said is for him the hardest of his year. About 200 kids end up on the waiting list.

The school doesn’t look like an enclave of privilege. It runs out of mostly portable units in the southwest-Chico Barber neighborhood. But the charter school’s 15-member board of directors includes prominent Chicoans—a former police chief, business owners, professors, attorneys.

Chapman Elementary School Principal Ted Sullivan presides over the most diverse school in the Chico Unified School District.

Photo By meredith j. cooper

Chico’s Angela Lopez stumbled upon Chico Country while searching for a new school for her son. Until the middle of the last school year, her son was a Chapman fifth-grader. But the boy was having trouble with another student, and eventually came home with a minor knife wound to his arm.

She had often walked by Chico Country, which is four blocks from her house. “I always thought, ‘That looks like a nice school,’” she said. She asked about transferring her son there. There was a mid-year opening and the boy was admitted.

At first her son complained there were only a couple of other Hispanic kids at the school, Lopez said, but then he adjusted. She said he’s with “rich kids” who seem nice. A single parent of eight children, she hasn’t yet been able to fulfill the volunteer requirement, but considers herself fortunate.

Latino parents are largely unaware of charter-school options, she said. “They live by a school and want their children to go there because it’s close. I’m really happy I found out about that school.”

The earliest charter proponents wanted to give parents like Lopez a choice in schools. Charters, they thought, could help close the achievement gap, particularly in large cities where inner-city schools were failing impoverished communities. In the 1980s, the charter movement gained traction as conservatives saw a chance to weaken powerful teachers unions and bring deregulation to public education.

The result is a charter law that states there should be “expanded learning experiences” for the “academically low-achieving,” but doesn’t provide an enforcement mechanism to the school districts that authorize charters. State legislation says charter schools should plan to reflect the diversity of the district authorizing their charters.

For many years, Chico Country has tried to diversify its lottery pool by distributing fliers in Spanish and Hmong, and recently it began setting aside lottery preferences for the diverse Barber neighborhood.

But after Chico Country petitioned last fall to renew its charter and open a high school, CUSD asked for a “stronger commitment” to increasing diversity, according to a district report. Chico Country resubmitted its petition with several new measures, including plans to hire a bilingual outreach coordinator within the next two years.

Chico Country parents said the volunteer requirement can be adapted to circumstances. Shayne Law, a company manager, said he travels often and his wife works. But there’s a variety of tasks that can be done by working parents, like organizing permission slips, he said.

But researchers like Siegel-Hawley view the volunteer requirements that have been adopted by many charter schools as a barrier to some families. “It does block access for [some] students,” Siegel-Hawley said. “A more highly-resourced family can dedicate itself to [volunteering] and get to the school. A lower-income family would struggle with that.”

The ability of charter schools to limit their size and control their make-up—while public schools must accept everyone who walks in the door—is one of the wedges that divide communities like Chico. Weber dismissed rumors that charter schools sometimes screen out difficult-to-serve students by redirecting them, and described the selection process parents themselves go through.

“We tend to get parents who are a little more active,” Weber said. “Everybody looks at a school in terms of whether it’s a good fit for them. Someone who comes in and says, ‘I want diversity,’ might feel they can’t get what they’re looking for here, whereas someone who values art and music might like [the school].”

Fourth-grade teacher Kathy Naas and her students work on a traditional project, building models of the California missions.

Photos By tania flores

As Chico Unified works to stave off insolvency, it’s increasing class size, cutting electives and laying off teachers. It’s lost more than 1,900 students in the past 12 years, costing it millions in state funding. CUSD wants its 586 teachers to take a pay cut, but negotiations with the union are stalled.

Parents like mom Jeanne Greene face the kind of stark choice—diversity or electives—described by Weber. Greene chose a non-charter school for her daughter, Rosedale Elementary, because it offers Spanish Two-Way Immersion, and with that program a second language and diversity. Some of her friends send their children to Chico Country.

“They have great programs, great test scores, and all the extras, like music and art,” Greene said of the charter. “And when you get your kid in through the lottery, it really is like winning the lottery; that’s how they perceive it. But it’s white, white, white-bread America. It’s so skewed ethnically and racially it doesn’t represent the population, not even of this city.”

Charters sometimes seem flush with money, or flush enough to offer electives, small classes and teacher training. It may be because they support tiny administrative structures and can more easily control teacher pay. Chico Country says its pay scale mirrors that of Chico Unified, but the average cost of a teacher, in salary and benefits, is almost $65,000 a year. CUSD—either because it has many older teachers and/or a superior benefits package—spends an average $20,000 more per teacher.

Research on charters has shown mixed results: Some are great and some are terrible. Yet both the Obama administration and the state are under the charter-school spell. An indication is the amount of money dedicated to planning grants for new charter schools. The California Department of Education awarded charters more than $48.5 million in federally funded grants during the last fiscal year, according to its website.

Former Chico High teacher Ron Pope, shown here with student David Love, co-founded the Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, an internal charter of the CUSD.

Photo By Leslie Layton

By segregating students—whether or not it’s intentional—charter schools can more easily adapt their curriculums to their students’ needs.

Weber has been working on a petition for a new charter school based at Chico’s Boys & Girls Club called PACE, Partnership to Advance Community Education. The plan is to take strategies that have been successful at Chico Country but tweak the program for students who may have different academic needs and parents who work long hours.

The club, Weber said, offers a chance to develop a program that has “more emphasis on basic skills and tutoring during an extended school day. The way we work with parents would be different, too.”

Weber responded to critics who say that segregating students by academic level is disadvantageous, particularly to the kids who are struggling.

“You can’t teach everybody the same way,” Weber said. “I don’t know the answer, but I do know that it doesn’t do anybody any good to have Jimmy and Sally—who have really different needs—in the same room. Wouldn’t it make sense that you’d develop different programs?”

Weber defended school choice as a solution to problems like the achievement gap. “I think the charter movement is giving parents a choice, a way to get out of failing schools. Unfortunately, we have [traditional] schools that are failing, and they happen to be on this side of town.”

CUSD refuses to apply the “failing school” label to Chapman, even though it’s on the state’s recent preliminary low-performing-schools list. The district says Chapman’s API score that measures performance and progress has made healthy and steady gains in recent years in response to a standards-based curriculum and a federal grant that funds before- and after-school tutoring.

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Chico Unified teacher Ron Pope, who has co-founded an internal CUSD charter school opening this week, might disagree. He recalled a class he taught at Chico High School in which students were asked to present personal-history projects. A Hmong student told how her family had spent years in a refugee camp awaiting the American help that had been promised during the Vietnam War.

Pope said: “Not one of these [white] kids knew any of that history. Can you imagine the difference in the way they looked at Hmong students after that? They had just seen them as a bunch of Asian kids. I don’t want to be part of tiered education; I believe we need to make public education work, but I’ve been frustrated that we find change so difficult.”

The charter, Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, will have some of the freedom that independent charter schools enjoy without competing directly with the district for students and funding. Pope has promoted the school on Spanish and Hmong-language KZFR radio programs in an effort to recruit a diverse student body.

With four new charter schools opening this month in Chico, competition among schools for the students who bring in per-pupil state funding is fierce. The new Chico Green School promised each student who enrolled an Apple iPad reader, and said it would be one of only five schools in the nation to base its curriculum on digital materials.

All the new charter schools have pledged to recruit students from minority communities, and Sherwood Montessori said it was reaching out to disabled students. But civil-rights advocates like Siegel-Hawley are calling for more leadership at both the state and federal levels; she says that perhaps charter schools should be required to provide transportation.

“There’s been no guidance from the federal government since the Clinton administration,” Siegel-Hawley said. “There’s a lack of leadership at all levels.”

Charter schools have helped bring innovation to a segment of Chico’s public-school students. But increasingly, the free-market competition that would make all schools better looks like a piece of the charter-school fairy tale.

Pope’s story about his student’s presentation brings to mind the lessons in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling against race-based segregation. The court then ruled that separate schools don’t provide equal access to opportunity for black or white students.

Fifty-six years later, instead of making sure that all children have environmental education, music and art, along with diversity, parents must choose.