Is it time for a new high school in East Sac? And what about Sac High?
Should the Sacramento school district establish a new high school for families in East Sac? Should the controversial Sacramento Charter High School be moved out of its spacious campus in order to make room? What about converting a prized junior high—Sutter Middle School—into a high school?
These are all possible fixes to a problem that’s been simmering for eight years—ever since the Sacramento City Unified School District turned over the struggling Sacramento High School to Kevin Johnson’s St. Hope organization to run as a charter school.
“Parents I’ve talked to feel like this is not their local school,” said Jeff Cuneo, who was elected last year to represent East Sacramento and Midtown on the school district’s board of trustees. With St. Hope ensconced in the Sacramento High School campus in Oak Park, there’s no traditional “comprehensive” high school in the old Sac High attendance area. “And that has led to flight of students, to private schools and out of our district,” said Cuneo.
The school district will soon send out surveys to families in the area (mostly East Sacramento, Midtown and River Park) asking them what kind of high-school options they want to see in the area.
Kristin Wright knows how she’ll respond. “We’d really like a high school for our neighborhood. We’d love to round out East Sacramento,” said Wright, a parent in the River Park area. She’d like to see a high school established somewhere that her kids could walk or bike to when the time comes. “We’re not talking about building another building. We’re just talking about being creative with what we have,” she added.
On Thursday, June 2, the SCUSD board of trustees will also meet behind closed doors to review Sacramento Charter High School’s lease. The renewal of the charter school’s “facility use agreement” is routine; all charter schools go through the process.
But Cuneo and other board members think it’s time to ask whether, in the long term, St. Hope is the best tenant for the Sac High campus, and to address the need for another high-school option in the East Sacramento and central city areas.
“We are losing kids to other districts because there’s no comprehensive high school in the area,” agreed Cuneo’s fellow board member Patrick Kennedy.
Kennedy is also concerned about the “facility use issue” at Sac High. Before it went charter, Sac High’s population was around 1,500 students. Today it’s in the 800s.
That’s partly because Sacramento Charter High School was not allowed to recruit in district middle schools until just recently, says Ed Manansala, the new superintendent of St. Hope schools. The school board changed that policy earlier this year, “and we’ve seen a significant increase in applications for enrollment for next year,” said Manansala.
He also noted that St. Hope recently moved the sixth-, seventh, and eighth-grade students from its elementary school—PS7—onto the Sac High campus as well. That adds another 165 students to the campus.
“When people say it’s underutilized, what does that really mean?” asked Manansala, saying he thinks the board should consider the “overall student performance and the needs of our community,” not just a few enrollment numbers.
But Kennedy says the issue of how to best use the Sac High building is separate from whether or not Sacramento Charter High School is a good school.
He notes that test scores have gone up at Sac High since it went charter, as have graduation rates and the number of students going on to college. Still, though Kennedy was not on the board at the time of the bitter fight over Sac High’s conversion, he says he would have opposed closing Sacramento High School and turning it over to St. Hope. Of course, Kennedy added, “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s real hard to get it back in.”
In fact, none of the current school board members were on the board during the Sac High fight. This is probably part of the reason this is getting a fresh look.
The political landscape in the school district changed somewhat with the introduction of district elections for the school board in 2008. Last year, the first chance that East Sacramento got to vote as a district for a school board candidate, they picked the candidate, Cuneo, who promised to tackle the issue.
But some of the options Cuneo has been talking about with area residents could be nearly as controversial as the charter school has been.
One option is to maintain the status quo. This would probably be the favored option for Manansala and St. Hope supporters. And Manansala notes that the district did a survey a few years back showing there really is no demand for another high school in the area. But Kennedy says he’s heard “many complaints” about that survey, and that “many have questioned the reliability of its results.”
“That is why we are now conducting a new survey,” he added.
Option two would be to make Sacramento Charter High School to co-locate with another small high school, most likely the high-achieving West Campus High School, now housed on 58th Street near Fruitridge Road.
But it could be awkward to try to shoehorn two distinct high schools into the same campus. It also would not fix the problem of a comprehensive high school for East Sacramento.
Then there’s “the swap.” Cuneo and others have talked about swapping West Campus and Sacramento Charter High School. The existing West Campus High School program—which has a waiting list, and which requires students to provide their test scores and grades before they are considered for admission—could share the campus with a larger traditional high-school program. This would be similar to the C.K. McClatchy High School model, which houses also the academically rigorous Humanities and International Studies Program. Then Sacramento Charter High School would be moved into the cozier West Campus facility.
Option four is even more complicated. Cuneo has proposed, for discussion, combining Sutter Middle School (next to McKinley Park) and the nearby Kit Carson Middle School into one school on the Kit Carson campus.
Kit Carson has been in danger of closure in the past because its enrollment is so low. The Sutter campus, with a capacity of about 900 students, could host East Sacramento’s new high school, though a small one. Call it McKinley High, or East Sacramento High School.
But Sutter is a wildly popular, very high-performing middle school. Parents from Land Park and the Pocket neighborhoods send their kids to Sutter, bypassing their neighborhood middle schools. And there are long waiting lists.
This plan would tighten the attendance area for Sutter, making it harder for kids from outside the attendance area to get in. A variation of this plan would be to move the Kit Carson kids to Sutter, and use Kit Carson as the new high school.
Phil Pluckebaum, a parent and a member of the newly formed group called the Sacramento Comprehensive High School Coalition, says that any plan involving Sutter or West Campus will encounter some resistance. “You’ve got these two golden geese. And nobody wants to mess with them,” Pluckebaum explained.
And of course, messing with Sacramento Charter High School is politically fraught as well.
The other problem is that it could be perceived as an attempt by well-heeled East Sacramentans to establish an elite, largely white, high school in their community, even though high school enrollment is down districtwide and the district is in pretty dire financial circumstances.
“If you end up with a plan that’s perceived as just a boutique, white East Sac school, it’s going to be tough to find four votes [on the school board],” said Pluckebaum.
Still, Pluckebaum says he thinks most of his neighbors come down in favor of the East Sacramento High School idea. He does, too, though he also likes the idea of swapping West Campus and Sacramento Charter High School.
Cuneo, whose day job is as a public defender working in the juvenile-justice system, is also concerned about the perception of elitism. But he says that the school’s eventual attendance area “may be more diverse than you think.”
“My main concern is trying to resolve the lack of a public high school in my community,” Cuneo said. “I think there are downsides to every proposal. If there was an easy answer, it wouldn’t have festered for so long.”