Preparing to fail

‘Radical’ Rhee's agenda syncs up with district's plan to close diverse schools

Local elementary student Michelle Bass already knew her school was spared a districtwide bloodletting by the time she stepped up to the podium during last week’s Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Education meeting.

Days earlier, Superintendent Jonathan Raymond issued yearlong reprieves to both Mark Twain Elementary School, Bass’ alma mater, and Tahoe Elementary School, which were part of a controversial school-closures list that peaked at 11 names.

During an emotionally charged meeting on February 21, a divided school board agreed to shutter seven and to add an eighth—Mark Twain, east of the Fruitridge Heights neighborhood, or Tahoe, a few miles north—the following month, as part of an ongoing effort to cut costs for a 10th straight year.

But after getting battered during community meetings held at each school before and after the closures vote, Raymond bailed on this final “Sophie’s choice.”

Raymond called the community’s connection to Mark Twain, in particular, “special and unique.”

But to Bass and others, the justification for sparing her school was as bewildering as the justification for closing the others.

“Of course I want Mark Twain to stay open, but I don’t think any school should close. All kids love their schools,” Bass said at the meeting on March 7. “It makes me sad the mayor is spending more time trying to save the Kings than our schools.”

That last line raised a ruckus of applause. Leave it to a tween to deliver a solid put-down.

Speaking of Mayor Kevin Johnson: The former head of St. Hope, which has seven charter schools in Oak Park, showed his school spirit by introducing his wife at a book reading the night before.

Michelle Rhee appeared at the Guild Theater in Oak Park to discuss Radical: Fighting to Put Students First before a partisan audience that applauded her tough assessment of a broken educational system beholden to its teachers’ unions.

Rhee said educators shouldn’t be able to use budget cuts, poverty or students’ personal barriers as “an excuse for why kids fail.”

The seven Sacramento schools being closed at the end of the year and the 10 expected to receive these displaced students are fat with such excuses. And while Rhee may not see socioeconomics or demographics as viable defenses for the public-school system, those at last week’s meeting charged the district with setting certain schools up to fail.

“The board’s decision … places most of the burden of the displacement and disruption on the shoulders of children who are already facing multiple barriers to education, achievement and further success,” said Liza Thantranon, a staff attorney with Legal Services of Northern California, which is representing Hmong Innovating Politics.

District enrollment has declined roughly 10 percent in the past decade, despite the number of school-age children growing slightly over the same period of time, according to district and U.S. Census Bureau figures. Another 800 students evaporated this year; a similar loss is projected next year.

While the district blames a struggling economy and shifting demographics for the erosion, others say privatization interests are self-fulfilling this prophecy.

“What happens when we close these schools? They become charter schools. We’re contracting our kids out,” Norma Christensen, a Tahoe Park resident, told board members.

If Rhee has her way, Christensen may be proven right.

Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization is planning a big legislative push in California.

“Going from first to worst is a tough thing, and we’ve got to figure a way to turn this thing around,” she said.

Voters rejected three of the four candidates her advocacy group supported in statewide school-board races last week. In West Sacramento, StudentsFirst spokesman Francisco Castillo lost to union pick Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez for a seat on the Washington Unified School District’s board. The other three races were in Los Angeles.

“Education is a blood sport,” Rhee noted.

And Sacramento is bleeding.