University High has long been ranked as one of the best schools in the country, but its leaders are worried Fresno Unified could close its doors.
Families from the high-achieving, music-centered charter school on Fresno State’s campus packed the Fresno Unified school board meeting Wednesday night, begging trustees to renew its charter after concerns that the school is discriminatory and not diverse enough. The school’s charter expires at the end of this school year.
University High was named among the country’s top 100 high schools by U.S. News & World Report earlier this year, and the seventh best in California. The school, which enrolls nearly 500 students, has a college acceptance rate of 97 percent.
In August, the American Civil Liberties Union cited University High and more than 200 charter schools across the state for being exclusionary, despite laws that require them to be open to all students. The ACLU criticized University High for its math and music enrollment requirements, pointing to legislation that says charter schools must accept all students who apply if space permits and can’t deny admission based on academics.
Since then, the school has dropped its math requirements, and the ACLU has removed it from its list of charter schools in violation of the law.
But some school board members still have concerns, pointing to the school’s demographics and the stark differences between its student body and most schools in Fresno Unified.
I don’t see anybody out there that looks like me so that’s why I’m not coming.
Fresno Unified Trustee Cal Johnson on University High School
While only about 10 percent of Fresno Unified students are white, nearly 40 percent of students at University High are white. Nearly 90 percent of Fresno Unified students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, while only 12 percent at University High qualify.
Fresno Unified Trustee Christopher De La Cerda urged that the school also drop its music requirements, saying it limits access for students.
“It’s our responsibility to scrutinize and hold accountable the charters that we oversee, and my concern is access. It’s a wonderful school, but there’s a concerning gap in the diversity of the school,” De La Cerda said. “If these requirements existed in some of our schools, the Office of Civil Rights would be demanding we address those issues, and be concerned about segregation.”
Trustee Cal Johnson said he is so appalled by the school’s lack of black students – less than 3 percent – that he’s declined invitations to visit the school.
“I don’t see anybody out there that looks like me so that’s why I’m not coming,” he said.
James Bushman, head of University High, said that the school has diversified its racial makeup in recent years and has also added a preference for low-income students, weighting their chance to get into the school through the lottery system.
“We do understand that the district has concerns about our student body composition. Of course we are interested in seeing a wider body of applications,” Bushman said. “It is our desire as a school to make sure that everybody has good access to the school and can come. We’re a public school, and public schools are free, and everybody can of course submit an application.”
It is our desire as a school to make sure that everybody has good access to the school and can come.
James Bushman, head of school at University High
The Fresno Unified school board has the ability to revoke University High’s charter. All charter schools must be authorized by a school district and be renewed every five years.
The district estimates the school costs it $4 million in average-daily-attendance dollars it would otherwise receive from the state, based on the number of students who attend University High instead. About 40 percent of University High students live in the Fresno Unified School District.
While Bushman said school administrators are addressing the concerns, he worries that changing too many of its requirements may change what the school is about.
“Every school can have equally the same admission pieces, everybody can go everywhere and we can make access to everything, but does that mean we lose the ability to create specialized schools that may really be best for the community?” he said. “How do you maintain a program’s integrity and still try to be as accommodating as possible?”
Twenty people spoke in favor of renewing the school’s charter, including Ram Nunna, dean of Fresno State’s College of Engineering, whose son attended University High.
“This is a school where any student can succeed regardless of gender, racial, ethnic or socioeconomic status,” he said. “These are normal students doing amazing things every single day.”
The school board will not vote on the matter until next month, but some trustees suggested they would support it despite some concerns.
“Why are you guys even here? Why is this even a discussion? This makes no sense to me,” Trustee Brooke Ashjian said. “For me, this is a no-brainer.”
The board meets again Nov. 9.