Education

This charter school will close due to low test scores, despite data from supporters

Kepler Neighborhood School, a charter school that opened in 2013, celebrated its grand opening for its new building in March.
Kepler Neighborhood School, a charter school that opened in 2013, celebrated its grand opening for its new building in March. blee@fresnobee.com

Kepler Neighborhood School, a charter school in downtown Fresno, will close before the next school year, after the Fresno Unified School District board voted 5-2 to deny its renewal petition Wednesday night.

The school’s low academic performance was one of the primary reasons behind the decision, according to a staff report released Monday. Kepler underperformed in math and language assessments compared to its neighborhood schools, as well as in comparison to Forkner Elementary, the school whose demographics are most similar to Kepler’s, according to the district's report.

In the report, Kepler also fell short of the average passing rate for all of Fresno Unified. Just over 24 percent of all Fresno Unified students meet or exceed math standards, while only 17.9 percent of Kepler students do. At Forkner, that rate is 57 percent.

But data compiled by Kepler shows that the school's middle school students outperform students at five nearby middle schools, including Hamilton, Gaston and Yosemite. Kepler staff members asked the district to consider their data in the decision.

Superintendent Bob Nelson said the board doesn’t take its decision lightly.

“We have to have schools that have an academically sound program,” he said. “A school has to function as a school.”

The staff report was compiled by a charter review staff comprised of 16 individuals from nine Fresno Unified departments. In addition to academic performance, the review team considered whether the school had a sound educational program and the means to achieve racial and ethnic balance.

Instructional superintendent Melissa Dutra said Kepler initially opened to serve the downtown Fresno neighborhood where Jefferson Elementary and Lowell Elementary are located.

But the majority of Kepler's 452 students come from outside of the neighborhood: 63 percent of students are from other Fresno Unified schools, 26 percent are from outside of the district entirely, while 10 percent come from Lowell Elementary and 1 percent come from Jefferson Elementary.

This has resulted in a racial makeup of the student body that is different than its surrounding neighborhood. White students comprise 41 percent of Kepler’s population, 4 percent of Lowell’s population and 2 percent of Jefferson’s population.

At a previous board meeting, staff, students and parents from Kepler told the board they hoped to keep their school open.

Executive Director Margaret Ameel acknowledged during the April 25 public hearing that the school’s test scores did not “reflect a deep academic achievement,” but said that starting this year, the school was focused on academics.

Timothy Yeager, dean of students at Kepler, said the school needed a better way to assess student progress but that overall, it had strong support from the community.

“Ethnicity and demographics don’t tell our school’s whole story,” he said. “We know we attract students from a variety of backgrounds, from families who found the support they were provided in certain district schools wasn’t enough.”

Kepler opened in 2013 and operated on a five-year petition, during which time the school saw changes in its leadership and its physical location. Dutra said the district is required to consider the renewal petition as it was presented, not what the plan might be moving forward.

Current Kepler students will be enrolled in their neighborhood schools, or given a chance to attend other charter schools within Fresno Unified.

Dutra said that the district was also giving Kepler students priority for summer school programs, in order to allow them to catch up academically.

Kepler has the option to appeal the district’s decision to the Fresno County Office of Education.

Aleksandra Appleton, 559-341-3747, aappleton@fresnobee.com
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