Johnson’s mixed results at Sac High

Take a look at Sac High for the mayoral candidate’s record

Matt Mitchell is an urban planner, writer and community activist in Sacramento.

With the mayoral race headed down the long backstretch, it’s worth stepping back from rumor and controversy to look at some actual data that reflects on Kevin Johnson’s abilities as a leader. The obvious place to look is at the record of Sacramento High School, by far Johnson’s most important venture. It’s a mixed record, with real positives and real negatives.

Enrollment is not a positive part of the story. Since its first year as a charter in 2003–04, enrollment has decreased by 45 percent, according to information provided by the Sacramento City Unified School District. The student body is also substantially less diverse today than when the charter began. According to data from the California Department of Education, enrollment of Asian students is down 61 percent, Latino enrollment is down 48 percent and white enrollment is down 80 percent, while African-American students’ enrollment is up slightly, by 3 percent.

Enrollment and diversity have declined, moreover, in a climate of lavish capital spending. More than 16 percent of total SCUSD bond expenditures this year have gone to Sacramento Charter High School (some $8.2 million). Over the longer period, the charter’s share of total district bond expenditures was only about 6 percent. But when you consider that the school houses only 2 percent of the district’s approximately 48,500 students, it’s clear that the charter has been on the receiving end of a striking amount of taxpayer largesse.

Undeniably, Johnson and St. Hope also can point to some key achievements. Standardized test scores are up about 9 percent over the life of the charter. But the key achievement is this: Substantial numbers of minority students from working-class backgrounds are graduating and headed for college. College acceptance letters line the walls of the school, with administrators quick to point out the ones from elite institutions (Swarthmore College, Stanford University and MIT).

Bragging about Stanford aside, those acceptance letters make it symbolically clear to every student walking in the door of Sacramento Charter High School that the college track is the name of the game. In a school where only 28 percent of parents graduated from college themselves, this is a very big deal.

The negatives about Johnson’s charter experiment may be easier to document with data than the positives, but moving a cohort of working-class minority kids up into college is neither easy nor cheap. That Johnson and St. Hope have had some success at this crucial project is more than can be said for many other expensive school-reform efforts.

But can St. Hope build on this success with a relatively small group of students, carrying it outward to gain the trust of the large numbers of local families who have, judging by the enrollment numbers, lost confidence in Sacramento Charter High School? There’s still hope for St. Hope, as long as Johnson sticks to the role of “big picture” visionary and fund-raiser and leaves the day-to-day management of the school to others.