Education

Kepler will keep operating after all. Does that mean Fresno is friendly to charter schools?

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

The Kepler Neighborhood School will keep operating after the Fresno County Schools Board voted 4-1 Thursday to approve the charter school's appeal, effectively reversing an earlier decision by Fresno Unified that would have led to the school's closure.

The downtown Fresno school will now be chartered by the county instead of the district, and will operate on a three-year charter with a provision that the school agree to "significant oversight and reporting requirements."

The three-year timeline was chosen in order to offer more performance data for a future review.

The room erupted into applause as the board announced its vote, with Kepler Executive Director Margaret Ameel wiping tears from her eyes.

Ameel said she felt relieved and vindicated following the vote.

"We have a tremendous staff here that's ready to get to work," she said. "There's no time off."

Julie Nidever, a parent of eighth- and third-graders at Kepler, said she's thrilled with the vote.

"We're excited to enter into a partnership with them, because that's what we needed," she said. "Someone to invest in us and and we'll invest in them."

The school has hired a site director and is operating a summer program.

Fresno Unified had cited the school's low test scores as one of the primary reasons not to renew the charter petition, but the county's charter review committee found that the school's preliminary 2018 CAASPP scores showed improvement over previous years. Kepler had appealed to the county after Fresno Unified's vote.

CAASPP data for this year is not yet available for other schools in order to provide a comparison.

The California Charter Schools Association recommended last year that Fresno Unified deny Kepler's renewal petition, and representative Michelle Murphy was at the meeting to make the same recommendation to the county board.

However, spokeswoman Caity Heim said the state organization is prepared to support Kepler as it moves forward.

“The nice thing about the appeals process is we can get a second opinion,” Helm said. "Issuing a recommendation not to renew a charter school is not a decision we make lightly."

Heim also said CCSA respects and appreciates the changes that Kepler's new leadership had made at the school, which includes a greater focus on academics, according to earlier presentations by Ameel.

The board was also set to vote on an appeal from the One & Only Academy, a charter school rejected by Clovis Unified in March, but the petitioning group withdrew its request according to board member Dr. Allen Clyde. The charter review committee had recommended denying their petition.

Lead petitioner Harmit Juneja said One & Only will revamp its petition and resubmit it to Clovis Unified for consideration.

CCSA supports One & Only Academy despite its setbacks, Heim said, as the charter school had met its legal requirements to open.

Is Fresno charter-friendly?

The board also heard comment Thursday from two other charter groups, the first group appealing a rejection of the Augustus Academy of Creative Arts and Technology at Central Unified, and the second making a revision to the Big Picture Educational Academy's charter.

The charter schools brought so many supporters, the groups had to rotate out of the board room.

Fresno appears to be growing friendlier toward charter schools, according to Heim, who said CCSA has seen more and more charter proposals pop up in the area.

In the 2016-17 school year, 34 charter schools were operating in the county — more than in California counties with similarly sized student populations, like Kern and Contra Costa.

Enrollment at the Fresno County charter schools has increased by 17.4 percent since 2012. In the 2017-18 school year, nearly 13,000 students attended charter schools out of about 200,000 total in the county. That's slightly more than in Kern or Contra Costa, although the latter two have seen spikes in enrollment over the last two school years.

California as a whole has seen a 150 percent increase in charter enrollment in the last decade, drawing praise from proponents of school choice, and ire from groups who say the schools are draining funds from public education.

Aleksandra Appleton, 559-341-3747, @aleksappleton
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