A state charter school organization is recommending that Kepler Neighborhood School, which has been championed as part of Fresno’s downtown revitalization, close due to poor academic achievement.
But school leadership is hopeful that Fresno Unified, which authorized the school to open in 2013, will vote to keep it open.
“Are parents concerned? Yes. Unfortunately, the unknown can create some fear,” said new superintendent Margaret Ameel. “But we fully believe we’re going to be here for the next five years and beyond. I’m very confident in the product that we have to offer.”
Ameel, who recently worked with charter schools in Detroit, has been Kepler’s superintendent for about a month. Wayne Morris, a retired educator from Central Unified, has been acting principal for about the same time. Christine Montanez, who served as principal since the school opened, is now principal at Carter G. Woodson Charter School of Multimedia in Fresno. She did not immediately return phone calls.
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The California Charter Schools Association said Friday that Kepler Neighborhood School, which enrolls more than 460 students, “has made tremendous efforts to meet the needs of the Fresno community” but has failed to meet minimal academic benchmarks.
55 percentOf Kepler Neighborhood School students are not proficient in math
Nearly half of Kepler students who took state standardized tests this year did not meet proficiency standards for English and language arts, and 55 percent are not proficient in math.
The school, which moved to a new location on Broadway near the Stanislaus Street bridge in March, also is underperforming when compared to other charter schools in the state that serve similar demographics, according to Elizabeth Robitaille, who oversees student achievement and performance for the California Charter Schools Association, an advocacy group.
“The school is in the bottom ranks of proficiency and has been consistently for the last several years of testing,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, but we just did not see any compelling evidence of growth in student learning. We did not see any data to make the case that students were achieving as a result of their experience at Kepler, and because of that, we are respectfully recommending that (Fresno Unified) hold the school accountable.”
Charter schools are open to the public and have more flexibility than traditional schools when it comes to curriculum. “It’s not a scripted curriculum. It’s about child discovery,” Ameel said of Kepler. “It’s an opportunity for students to get a hands-on learning experience. Our goal is to serve the community.”
I’m very confident in the product that we have to offer.
Kepler Superintendent Margaret Ameel
Ameel said that the CCSA’s recommendation is merely an opinion, and that ultimately, Fresno Unified will decide whether or not Kepler gets to remain in operation.
Fresno Unified, Kepler’s authorizing agency, said the school’s re-authorization application is due early next year. Before it goes up for a school board vote, the process will include visits to the school and a review of its academic progress and financial standing.
“The district is aware of the situation at Kepler, and our charter office has been working with their school leadership on the matter,” Fresno Unified spokesman Miguel Arias said Friday. “Charters have their own governing board and Fresno Unified’s very limited role is to provide financial oversight and review their authorization every five years.”
While we have appreciated their efforts in recent months to make significant changes, they haven’t been able to meet the academic threshold we’ve held to all charter schools in the state.
Caity Heim, California Charter Schools Association spokeswoman
Dorina Lazo Gilmore-Young, a mother of three Kepler students, said she chose the school for its focus on service learning, and that she’s hopeful the school will not close.
“Our goal is to serve downtown Fresno, and for our kids to have those learning experiences. We are part of the revitalization movement of downtown,” she said. “Fresno Unified has given us much confidence that we are not going be closed down. There is a recommendation, but Fresno Unified makes that decision.”
Jeff Sands, CCSA’s managing regional director for Fresno-area charter schools, said CCSA has been working with Kepler to improve its student achievement for nearly two years to no avail.
“This is not a new issue. It’s kind of down to the 11th hour, and we still haven’t been able to see them meet that academic threshold we have to hold all charter schools to,” he said. “The commitment to downtown they’ve done, in terms of outreach and community building, they’ve done exceedingly well. But at the end of the day, you have to be a really good school.”