No Hope for MESL

How one of Sacramento High’s best- performing academies got lost in the transition

Coordinator Jean Crowder fought until the end for Sacramento High School’s now-defunct Math, Engineering, Science and Language Arts Academy.

Coordinator Jean Crowder fought until the end for Sacramento High School’s now-defunct Math, Engineering, Science and Language Arts Academy.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Jean Crowder, the proud coordinator of the old Sacramento High School’s now defunct Math, Engineering, Science and Language Arts (MESL) Academy, ended the academy’s final year this June by sending every one of her 21 graduating seniors off to a four-year college or university with at least one scholarship to help each of them finance their educations.

“We knew what we were doing,” she said.

This is confirmed by letters written to the school district by administrators from the statewide Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement program, or MESA, a partner of the MESL Academy and of 500 other such programs across the state.

Oscar Porter, associate director of the MESA office, wrote, “Our overall impression of the academy is extremely positive. Its use of teaching resources, its ability to motivate students and its success in engaging families clearly make it one of the most successful programs we have seen across the state.”

Crowder regularly refers to her academy as a statewide model for turning economically disadvantaged urban youth into well-financed college students. She’s especially proud of her success with minority students. Of her graduating college-bound class, approximately 75 percent were either African-American or Latino.

Unfortunately, Sac High as a whole did not have a similar record. The school board voted to close Sac High and turn it into a St. Hope Corp.-run charter school after it failed to meet state academic standards—but before a state audit team was allowed to come in and figure out why. As of press time, court decisions continued to threaten the new charter school.

MESL had been one of three academies at the old Sac High. The Visual and Performing Arts Center opened its own charter school this fall, and the Health Academy moved to another campus. As the new school year began, Crowder’s MESL Academy was the only one that hadn’t found a new home.

During the first week of school, it was obvious that the previous Sac High’s three academies had left a powerful imprint on the new school. St. Hope’s new School of the Arts and School of Health were the first to fill up. The new School of Math, Engineering and Science was close behind.

Though Porter and other MESA administrators wrote to former Superintendent Jim Sweeney as early as May to ask the district to find space for the MESL Academy, district school-board member Manny Hernandez said the issue didn’t really reach the board until a couple weeks before school started.

“Inquiries came in very recently,” said Hernandez. He added that if MESL couldn’t be absorbed into either St. Hope or another high school, the program probably would be dissolved.

As summer wound down, Crowder started receiving calls from teary parents pledging their support to any new plan to get the MESL Academy up and running again.

Parent Sheila Stern explained that because of the MESL program, her daughter Elizabeth was heading to Whittier College in Orange County, as the first in her family to attend college. Crowder’s academy not only prepared Elizabeth academically, said Stern, but also helped the family complete a confusing application process and found the family enough scholarship money to make college nearly free.

Stern’s younger daughter, Michelle, was unwilling to enroll in any school before the end of summer because of the slim possibility that MESL could find a new space, as had its sister academy, the Visual and Performing Arts Center.

Crowder didn’t like the idea of submitting a charter proposal of her own. She believed in public education, she said, and wanted to remain a part of the district.

Originally, however, Crowder had planned to join St. Hope. The MESL coordinator said she even got a personal phone call from Kevin Johnson, St. Hope’s founder, saying that he would be foolish to try to open a math-and-science academy without her. But at the beginning of negotiations, Crowder became uncomfortable with the contracting process. For her teachers to move to St. Hope, they would have to give up their jobs with the district and the protection of a union.

“A lot of our staff members had a lot of time invested in the district,” said Crowder. “St. Hope wanted them to give up those ties and sign a contract for one year. I couldn’t ask people to do that.”

Crowder also was uncomfortable with the way the school was hiring administrators. Crowder felt St. Hope had made a promise to the community to involve the school-design team, which included academy coordinators like herself, in a top-down, nationwide search for the most qualified people. Instead, principals and the president all were hired from the Sacramento area and not in the ordered fashion Crowder expected.

Lori Mills, a representative for St. Hope, said she wasn’t certain what Crowder’s reasons were for not joining the new school but that St. Hope officials were disappointed by Crowder’s decision.

Once Crowder chose not to join St. Hope, she and her strong parent-support network began looking at other options. MESL could stay on campus as a separate academy, suggested Crowder, much the way West Campus shared space at Hiram Johnson High School. But according to Crowder, St. Hope officials said absolutely not.

Crowder then considered other campuses. Some of her teachers were hired at John F. Kennedy High School, and Crowder suggested that with a couple more portable classrooms and resources for one more teacher, she probably could set up a 100-student academy on the Kennedy campus.

“We would have been a great fit,” she said. “The principal wanted us, the Latino and African-American parents wanted us.”

But Mary Shelton, principal of John F. Kennedy High School, said Crowder may have misunderstood her. It wasn’t a matter of a couple teachers and portables, she said. Her school already was over-enrolled, and she never could have accommodated those 100 students.

On September 2, St. Hope’s School of Math, Engineering and Science began the school year without Crowder and without the team of teachers who’d been so successful the year before. The academy’s teachers and the students, said Crowder, are now scattered.

Without Crowder, David Hunt, the new principal of St. Hope’s School of Journalism and the ex-principal of Hiram Johnson’s West Campus, also had become the principal of the School of Math, Engineering and Science, partly because of the small enrollment numbers for the journalism program.

Without an academy of her own, Crowder was considering new opportunities.

“I’m writing a book,” she said, crossing her arms while she sat among papers, files and folders in the local MESA office.

“You know," she said, thinking about the difficult transition from public school to charter and about the options Johnson could have considered, "if he had come in a year later, after all the audit and everything, he probably would not have lost VAPAC, probably would have kept our academy, probably would have pulled all this in."