Succeed or surrender

As Democratic presidential candidates debate school busing, Sac High’s graduation ceremony reveals the tricky role that charters play

Sacramento Charter High School’s class of 2019 graduated 138 students this summer, slightly less than half of the 282 who started freshman year.

Sacramento Charter High School’s class of 2019 graduated 138 students this summer, slightly less than half of the 282 who started freshman year.

Photo by Kris Hooks

From the rows on the floor to the near-nose bleed seats in the balcony, Memorial Auditorium was packed for Sacramento Charter High School’s 2019 graduation.

As with most graduations, the call to hold applause until the end was largely ignored. With my cousin next to be called, I figured self-restraint was unlikely.

“Summa cum laude,” a voice said. The man paused to let the screams and whistles simmer before continuing, “Amaya Rose-Hook.”

Like her fellow students, she belongs to one of many communities that has suffered from decades of racism, economic disinvestment and political disinterest—and then attended one of America’s charter schools dedicated to closing the education gap.

In that respect, Sacramento Charter High School is no different than other charter schools in the country, graduating upwards of 90% of its students and sending at least 85% to college.

But the school known to most as “Sac High” is unlike others in Sacramento. Of the 138 students who received their diplomas, none were white.

“One of the things that I could say that Sac High was good for is that I got to be around a whole bunch of black people,” my cousin told me the day before she left for San Diego State University.

The idea of a quasi-segregated public school normally sounds alarms at the state level, where lawmakers backed by a powerful teachers union are deciding bills to further regulate charter schools and halt their growth. And even at the national level where a Democratic presidential debate turned into an anecdotal history lesson about school busing and desegregation, the question of whether America has lived up to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling remains bitterly contested.

Publicly funded but privately operated charter schools have largely benefited from bipartisan support over the years as an alternative to a traditional school system that has largely failed students from disadvantaged communities.

Sac High graduates are 90% black and Latinx, and most from Oak Park, a historically black and brown neighborhood undergoing rapid gentrification.

But as the state attempts to crack down on profiteering charter schools and questions linger about their effectiveness, do charters actually provide the best opportunity for underserved students—or just prove that America has surrendered its 65-year effort to provide equal education regardless of race?

Charter schools continue to grow at a rapid rate across the country, including in California, where nearly 10% of K-12 students are enrolled in charters.

According to financial records filed in July, the powerful California Teachers Association spent more than $4.3 million this year on lobbying efforts, including for Assembly Bills 1505 and 1507, which it cosponsored and which would slow the expansion of charter schools.

On Aug. 28, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the CTA and California Charter Schools Association had reached an agreement that, if passed by lawmakers and signed by him, would overhaul charter school laws for the first time in decades.

The deal would give local school boards more power to reject charter school applications based on financial impact, and require charter schools to hire credentialed teachers for core classes. The deal would also protect existing charters from school districts’ financial considerations when applying for renewals, a big concession for charter advocates who said the original bill would all but create a moratorium.

Still, arguments persist over whether charter schools are effective in closing the education gap, especially in Sacramento, where graduation rates for black and Latinx students—72% and 78%, respectively—are lower than their white classmates, 84%.

“It’s particularly important for African-American families because the district-run schools have so underserved black students,” Fortune Schools CEO Margaret Fortune said during a recent town hall in Oak Park. “And unless you’re a data denier, the data is irrefutable that that’s the case.”

With or without charter schools, America’s education system has become more segregated since the landmark Brown v. Board decision in 1964. According to “Brown at 60: Great progress, a long retreat and an uncertain future,” a 2014 study by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, California was among the top 10 most segregated states in the country for black and Latinx students in 2012.

There are 52 charter schools in Sacramento County, most with student populations that either mirror the area’s population or are primarily white. Others, including Fortune Schools and St. Hope Academy (to which Sac High belongs), educate mostly black and brown students in low-income neighborhoods.

Charter schools that emphasize closing the achievement gap for black and brown students are graduating those same kids at higher rates than traditional public schools, and their proficiency rates are often higher, too.

Fortune, who helped get Sac High chartered in 2003 before starting Fortune Schools, operates one of the most successful charter systems in Sacramento. Data from Fortune’s most recent accountability report show her students outperform the public districts by at least 10 percentage points in both English and math proficiency.

More than 88% of students at Fortune schools are African-American or Latinx.

“I am unapologetic in our fight in closing that academic achievement gap, and I welcome anyone to our campus who might disagree,” Fortune said in a phone interview.

The number of Sac High’s graduates could have been higher.

The class of 2019 started with 282 students (only one of whom was white), so there was a 51% decrease in just four school years. It’s difficult to determine the exact cause for the enrollment drop, though the numbers nearly mirror the area’s demographic shift. As more white residents move in, buying homes that have been rented out for decades by absentee landlords, more longtime black and Latinx residents are forced to move out.

But Rose-Hook has other theories. “There were a few that dropped out, and then personal reasons,” the 18-year-old recalled. “But a lot of the students that left was because they didn’t like Sac High.”

The high school is Sacramento’s oldest, opening in 1856 and settling in Oak Park in 1924. In 2003, after being threatened with a state takeover or a permanent shutdown, the Sacramento City Unified School District decided to issue a charter to future Mayor Kevin Johnson and his St. Hope Corp.

Despite objections from the community, the school was failing its students. During a December 2002 meeting, a state official said only 25% of Sac High students in 2001 could read at grade level, and only 41% could do math at grade level.

In 2018, 15 years after it became a charter, the school still underperforms. Only 10.4% of students met or exceeded math proficiency scores, and only about 37% achieved English proficiency, according to data from the California Department of Education.

Yet the school still outperforms Sacramento City Unified School District and the state average in getting students to college. In a phone interview with SN&R, St. Hope’s Chief of Schools Kari Wehrly pointed to the school’s graduation and college-going rates as markers of the school’s many successes.

According to state data, in 2018, 85.1% of Sac High graduates went onto college after graduating. That same year, Sacramento County and California’s college-going rates were about 65%.

“Is it something that we’re 100% on? No, but we’re constantly striving for it,” said Wehrly, who stepped in as Sac High’s top administrator after the previous one abruptly resigned over St. Hope’s handling of a 2018 student walkout. “We’re not going to be done until our graduation rate is 100% and our suspension rate is at zero.”

But just because the charter sends a higher percentage to college doesn’t mean that all students believe they are prepared, according to nearly a dozen former and current Sac High students.

“They kind of babied us and held our hand throughout the whole time,” Rose-Hook said. “You could pass a class with just turning in your classwork and homework. The testing wasn’t that hard. Even in AP classes, they kind of babied you.”

“The fact is, they make us look good on paper,” added Chianne Carrier, an incoming senior. “The problem is, what are you really teaching us that could really stick? For the 95% that do graduate from Sac High and go to a four-year university, how many are actually staying?”

Rose-Hook and Carrier are talking about retention—the rate at which students stay in college after their first year. Nationally, only 74% of first-year college students in 2017 returned to campus for their second year, according to a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. For black and Latinx students, the numbers are even lower—66% and 70%, respectively.

Wehrly said St. Hope actively works to push students to and through college through its partnership with the national nonprofit College Track, which works with students from underrepresented communities during high school and tracks their progress through college.

Rose-Hook was a beneficiary of St. Hope’s College Track partnership, and even received a scholarship through the organization.

“I stayed on top of my stuff, so they didn’t really worry about me, but the support was there and I knew it was there,” Rose-Hook said. “It kind of sucks that they can’t accept all students, because there are a lot of kids who need the extra help.”