Fresno Unified denies charter renewal for New Millenium school

The Fresno BeeMay 8, 2013 

Fresno Unified trustees voted unanimously Wednesday night to not renew a five-year charter for troubled New Millennium in west Fresno, agreeing with district staff and the county grand jury that the school had failed to fix itself.

Trustee Janet Ryan said the charter school was given a chance five years ago to improve but has failed to do so.

On a recent visit to the school, Ryan said, she found sincere, good people "trying to do some good things, but what I did not see was a viable education plan."

Trustees approved Ryan's motion to deny the school a five-year charter renewal on a 5-0 vote. Trustee Christopher De La Cerda was ill and not in attendance, and trustee Cal Johnson recused himself from the discussion and vote. Johnson works as a crisis counselor at the school.

District staff said concerns remain about the school's enrollment and financial stability.

New Millennium officials had no comment about the vote to deny the charter renewal. The board of directors, however, will discuss an appeal, said Chairman Earl Brown. The board can appeal for a petition of renewal to the Fresno County Office of Education within 30 days.

The school has about 240 students who are at risk of not completing high school. Most are in grades 9-12 and are in independent study.

New Millennium this year came under the scrutiny of the Fresno County Grand Jury, which recommended the charter not be renewed. The grand jury criticized the school for its independent study program and low student achievement, and chastised Fresno Unified for its oversight of the school.

At an April 24 public hearing, students and parents asked Fresno Unified trustees to keep the school open, saying it meets the needs of at-risk students who struggled at comprehensive high schools.

Wednesday night they again appealed to trustees.

New Millennium Principal Nadar Ali acknowledged the school's past problems, but said improvements have been made.

"Consider the good that has gone on in our recent past," he said. The school has seen four years of growth in API standardized test scores, he said. And 64% of the graduates go on to attend junior and vocational colleges or to get jobs. "We are turning this school around little by little every day," he said. "Please allow us to continue this progress."

Juan Ramirez, a teacher for two years at the school, said 90% of the students read and write below the fourth-grade level when they come to the school. Traditional curriculum did not work for the non-traditional students who attend New Millennium, he said.

Carolyn Major, an independent study teacher at the school, said students get attention from staff who care about them, unlike what they had experienced at other schools.

"The educational program they have come from has not met their needs," she said after the board's vote. "So where will they go now? What other schools? They've been there."

Trustee Luis Chavez said he was concerned about leaving southwest Fresno without a charter school and proposed the board grant a provisional one-year charter with specific goals for the school to meet within that time frame.

Trustees rejected Chavez's proposal after district legal counsel, Susan Hatmaker, said it was not an option. By state Education Code, the board could only renew the charter for five years. Only new charter petitions can be made for less than five years, she said.

The board's vote does not close the school. And during an appeal it would remain open, said Debra Odom, Fresno Unified's charter coordinator. But if the school were to close, parents and students would receive information about other school choices, she said, including other charter schools that offer independent study programs. "No child will get lost in the cracks," she said.

Grand jury members, who recommended the charter not be renewed, were in attendance Wednesday night. The jury members also criticized trustees for lax oversight of the charter school. They offered no comment on the trustees' action.

The board could not come to a consensus on the finding by the jury that the district needs to be more involved in ensuring that charter schools meet conditions and stipulations for operation.

Hatmaker recommended the board disagree with the finding, saying the district exceeds its oversight responsibility.

Trustee Michelle Asadoorian, however, said she could only partially disagree because trustees did not follow through on a recommendation made by Superintendent Michael Hanson in 2009 to revoke the charter. Chavez abstained, leaving only trustees Ryan, Carol Mills and board President Valerie Davis in total disagreement with the jury finding.

Trustees also disagreed with the grand jury's recommendation that they create a subcommittee to review charter schools.

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

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