Parents want to convert closed Sacramento campus into charter school

A group of parents Thursday night will urge Sacramento City Unified trustees to approve a charter school at Joseph Bonnheim Elementary, one of seven campuses closed last year due to falling enrollment.

The petition – initiated by parents late last year – seeks to educate more than 320 K-6 students starting in the fall. The charter school would hire district teachers, administrators and classified staff subject to collective bargaining. That approach helped parents win support last month of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, which historically has been critical of charter schools.

Many backers of New Joseph Bonnheim Community Charter School opposed the elementary school closures, which predominantly affected lower-income neighborhoods with disadvantaged students. Before Bonnheim’s closure, 94 percent of students at the south Sacramento campus qualified for free or reduced-price meals.

The school’s theme would be based on agriculture, drawing from the industry in the region. It touts support from agricultural organizations and educational institutions. The charter school also would pursue a “body-brain approach to teaching” that incorporates physical activity into academic exercises.

The educational plan, according to the petition, mirrors the Yav Pem Suab Academy on South Land Park Drive, which includes a Hmong-language component. The academy was founded by Dennis Mah and approved as an independent charter in the district in 2010. Mah has offered to lend $300,000 in startup costs and to work for free at Bonnheim, he said.

New Joseph Bonnheim proponents initially submitted an application in December, but district staff recommended that the board reject the school. They said petitioners failed to adequately describe challenges facing the school’s target population, show an understanding of student needs or define approaches that would meet those needs. The board at the time voted to table the petition so that it could be retooled for reconsideration.

The latest petition has found similar district resistance. In a report Friday, staff reviewers found the proposed educational program lacked clarity in governance and hiring matters. And they repeated warnings that the petitioners are unlikely to succeed in launching the charter school and did not meet state Education Code requirements in explaining programs.

Advocates expressed disappointment at the latest critical staff report. They spent much of this week knocking on doors in the Bonnheim neighborhood rallying parents to appear at Thursday night’s meeting.

Arthur Aleman, one of the three petitioners leading the effort, said parents of more than 300 students have said they would support the plan, including parents of dozens of students who live outside the district.

Aleman’s granddaughter, 11-year-old Destiny Silva, said she will start the fifth grade at Bonnheim if it is reopened. Before the school closed, Destiny said, she was able to ride her bike the three blocks to school. Currently, Aleman drives his granddaughter 4 miles to David Lubin Elementary School in east Sacramento.

“It’s not about keeping the school (Bonnheim) open,” Aleman said. “We want something new in this community to inspire kids in education. It’s something that is needed. The district is losing students. Let’s bring them back.”

At a May 15 hearing on the petition, Trustee Gustavo Arroyo, who represents the Bonnheim neighborhood, was enthusiastic.

In his six years on the school board, “this is the first time I’ve seen proponents of charter schools led by parents,” he said, based on a recording. Arroyo called the school’s proposed agricultural theme “phenomenal.”

Others also lauded the parent effort but had questions.

“It’s parent engagement at its finest,” Trustee Christina Pritchett said at the May 15 meeting before asking a series of budget and staffing questions.

“We’ll see what happens at the public hearing,” Board President Patrick Kennedy said this week in a voicemail. “Overall, I think that staff has put forward … serious concerns over the finances, among other things.”