Two Lowell-area charter schools approved

The Fresno BeeSeptember 13, 2012 

Plans for two new charter schools in Fresno's Lowell neighborhood promise new opportunities for children and parents in one of the city's most troubled communities.

The Fresno Unified School Board on Wednesday unanimously approved a charter petition for the Kepler Neighborhood School, a proposed K-8 that founders plan also to use for community improvement and adult education. The school will open for the 2013-14 school year with about 240 students from the Lowell neighborhood and the adjoining downtown cultural arts district.

High school students will also soon have a Lowell neighborhood alternative. Westside Elementary School -- a 640-student district in southwest Fresno County -- recently approved a charter petition spearheaded by Javier Guzman of the Chicano Youth Center to serve at-risk teens. The school, which is scheduled to open with a small class as early as January, will be the latest addition to a Southern California-based group of public charters, Opportunities For Learning.

The two schools give Lowell residents a chance to get an education that could lead to better job opportunities in a community where almost half of families live in poverty. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the neighborhood is more impoverished than any other place in Fresno.

"Kepler is another alternative in Lowell. And that's just something kids in my neighborhood see far less often" than kids in other parts of the city, said Randy White, a Lowell resident and faculty member at Fresno Pacific University.

White is part of a community of faith leaders, college students and educators who have moved to Lowell over the past two decades to help transform it. Their energies have coalesced into a strong neighborhood association that has brought pride and leadership to the area. They've made some progress, cracking down on crime and cleaning up abandoned properties. Kepler Neighborhood School is the latest project to emerge from their efforts.

Kepler is the brainchild of Shiela Skibbie, a teacher and longtime Lowell resident. It offers an alternative to the three Fresno Unified elementary schools that serve the neighborhood -- Lowell, Webster and Jefferson. Kepler will emphasize community service, and students will work with downtown nonprofits, government entities and faith-based groups, strengthening the neighborhood's ties to these organizations, said Barbara Fiske, co-chairwoman of the Lowell neighborhood association and a member of Kepler's executive board. The school will offer a safe space for neighborhood meetings and night courses in computer literacy, GED preparation and learning English.

While the school has a name -- Kepler honors German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler -- it doesn't yet have a home. Fresno Unified's approval stipulates that Kepler will meet certain deadlines for securing a location, developing curriculum and hiring staff.

The new high school charter is also missing a home. Opportunities For Learning plans to start enrolling for the spring; Guzman said the first class will meet at the Chicano Youth Center until the school has a site. Plans call for the school eventually to serve grades eight to 12.

Opportunities For Learning will seek out high school dropouts and at-risk students. Superintendent of Fresno County Schools Larry Powell said it has "potential to do some good things."

Guzman, who served on the Fresno Unified Graduation Task Force, said the charter will not compete for Fresno Unified students but will give a second chance to kids who aren't getting the help they need.

The school will be one solution, he said, to the community's dropout problem: "We've decided to concentrate on building an educational safety net so we won't be losing these kids through the cracks."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @heathersomervil on Twitter.

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