Fate of New Millennium charter school rests with Fresno Unified

Will board be swayed by grand jury report that blasts New Millennium?

The Fresno BeeApril 6, 2013 

The future of a southwest Fresno charter school that the county grand jury says has "failed miserably" to educate students now rests with Fresno Unified officials who have been criticized for inadequate oversight of the school.

The Fresno County Grand Jury said in a report released last month that New Millennium Institute of Education "has shown no indication that it is capable of providing a competent education" to at-risk students.

The school's charter should not be renewed at the end of this school year, the grand jury said.

But New Millennium says the school has taken steps to improve its educational program and expects the charter will be recommended for renewal.

The decision to grant a five-year charter renewal lies with Fresno Unified trustees. That decision is expected at the board's meeting on May 8, which also is their deadline to respond to the grand jury report. The grand jury questioned the district's ability to monitor charter programs and made recommendations for improvement.

New Millennium is scheduled to present its petition for charter renewal to the school board on Wednesday and its case for renewal on April 24.

Earl Brown, New Millennium board chairman, said the school has developed an educational/career program in the past two years that "provides service to a segment of students that may otherwise pursue a path of crime, gangs and/or welfare." New Millennium accepts students who have dropped out or been expelled from other schools, including in Fresno Unified, he said.

"We believe the FUSD trustee board should approve our charter renewal petition because we have complied with every requirement that FUSD and (the California Department of Education) established for the operation of a charter school," Brown said.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson would not say what his recommendation will be on the charter renewal and on a response to the grand jury. District staff is preparing reports on both board items for his review, he said.

Board President Valerie Davis said trustees will have to wait for staff reports on the New Millennium charter before reaching a decision. "It depends on what our staff finds and we'll probably follow that recommendation," she said.

New Millennium's charter previously faced a recommendation of revocation from the Fresno Unified charter review team.

In 2008, the team recommended trustees renew the New Millennium charter for five years -- but attached stipulations. It gave the school a year to address problems, including curriculum management and attendance discrepancies.

A year later, problems persisted and an audit had showed the school owed money to the state for attendance discrepancies for students in independent study. The district review team recommended the charter be revoked.

Hanson, however, did not present a revocation recommendation to trustees, and questions have swirled since as to why, including whether trustee Cal Johnson's employment as a crisis counselor at New Millennium played a role.

Hanson vehemently denied any influence from Johnson. He said he was waiting for the state Department of Education to agree to a repayment plan on money owed from the attendance discrepancies and then believed the charter was turning itself around. On Wednesday, the superintendent said he doesn't regret his decision but would not comment further.

Johnson has said he excuses himself from any board discussions or decisions about the school. He reiterated that Wednesday when asked about the upcoming charter renewal request.

The grand jury said it decided not to investigate Johnson's employment. A Fresno Unified board member cannot be an employee of a school within the district, but charter schools are outside the district, and employment is acceptable, it said.

Fresno Unified trustee Michelle Asadoorian, reached for comment about the grand jury report and New Millennium's charter renewal, was critical of Hanson's failure to move forward with the review team recommendation to revoke the charter. The board, however, also needs to take responsibility for not following up, she said: "It kind of just fell in a black hole."

Asadoorian said she has concerns about the school and believes trustees should take seriously the grand jury recommendation not to renew the charter.

"It's a school that is failing," she said.

The grand jury report, prompted by a story about New Millennium published last September in The Bee, said there was little documentation to show the charter has resolved problems except for negotiating to repay the state.

"This is a school that claims to have the students foremost in mind, but the evidence points that the primary interest is retaining the charter and the funding associated with it," the grand jury said.

The school has taken actions to meet a standard or impress those with oversight, "only to revert back to business as usual," the grand jury said, citing accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges as an example.

In recommending the charter not be renewed, the grand jury also cited the school's use of independent study as being "largely inappropriate for their student population," dismal test scores and a lack of stability and continuity in the school administration.

After 15 years in operation, test scores for the school are among the lowest of schools in the Fresno Unified School District, including other charter and continuation schools, the grand jury said. Only 4.2% of students were proficient in language arts and science last year, with 1.1% proficient in history and less than 1% in math.

In addition, the grand jury said, "there is no indication that any progress is being made to correct these deficiencies," which should be expected from a school chartered to serve a specific student population.

Fresno County grand jury report pages 1-6, New Millennium response pages 7-12:

Brown offered written responses and comments to the grand jury findings:

Payment discrepancies: New Millennium acknowledged the absence of teacher signatures on some student files that led to an $870,000 attendance discrepancy and requested the state approve a repayment plan, which was accepted. No problems have occurred since, he said.

Wrong reasons for seeking accreditation: The school's decision to seek accreditation was prudent, he said. It validates the school programs, he said, and many charter schools use it to identify strengths and weaknesses.

Independent study wrong for at-risk students: The appropriateness of independent study is an ongoing debate among educators and New Millennium has not ignored it, he said. The school had developed three academic resource labs where students get one-on-one attention.

Inability to measure student achievement: The school has become better at assessing, analyzing and taking action for student achievement, he said. It has met growth targets set by the state for the Academic Performance Index standardized testing over the past four years and has achieved Adequate Yearly Progress growth over the past two years, he said. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools that don't achieve Adequate Yearly Progress growth are considered failing.

High administrative and staff turnover: The school administration has a new leader who is a good fit for the school, and more than half of the 2008 teaching staff has been retained, he said. Three board vacancies were the result of deaths.

Linzie Daniel, a former Fresno County administrator who is a New Millennium board member, said he also disagrees with the grand jury's assessment of the school.

Students who come to New Millennium have failed in the traditional classroom, he said. "We're keeping them in some form of education. If they weren't in New Millennium, where would they be?"

Schools other than New Millennium use independent study, Daniel said. "It's a model, ironically, that Fresno Unified uses itself when it expels its own students," he said.

School performance likely will be a topic of discussion by Fresno Unified trustees in considering New Millennium's petition for charter renewal.

Trustee Luis Chavez said he has concerns: "I will be looking at making sure whoever walks through the door is receiving a good quality education." Chavez said he plans to visit the school soon.

Trustees also have to respond to the grand jury report findings, which included criticizing the board for lax oversight.

In the report, the grand jury said Fresno Unified has one person who is in charge of monitoring charter schools and questioned the process for renewing charters.

"With currently 10 schools to oversee, and with an average of two coming up for renewal every year, this person's ability to monitor programs for compliance is limited," the grand jury said.

The district should create a subcommittee to ensure charter schools are reviewed on a timely basis, the grand jury recommended.

Davis and Asadoorian said the district has a team of people who review charter schools. The team includes the district's director of accountability, fiscal services, human resources, facilities management and legal counsel, the district said.

The March grand jury report is one of two this year that has been critical of Fresno Unified trustees.

In February, the grand jury scolded trustees for not reviewing bylaws on a regular basis, reluctance in enforcing bylaws, violating policy by paying trustees who miss board meetings and discord on the board.

That report was sparked by controversy over former trustee Tony Vang's residency. The grand jury dropped that investigation when Vang resigned in September but looked at how the same situation could be prevented in the future.

Trustees disagreed in whole or part with the grand jury findings, but agreed to develop a statement about trustee residency.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, banderson@fresnobee.com or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.

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