Parents push for West Sacramento charter schools

Kindergarten teacher Veronica Fong talks to students on opening day of Lighthouse Charter School in West Sacramento earlier this month.
Kindergarten teacher Veronica Fong talks to students on opening day of Lighthouse Charter School in West Sacramento earlier this month.

The growing community of West Sacramento is home to a diverse population of students with many different needs but only one school district to serve them.

Now, parents are demanding more options.

Parents were the force behind the opening earlier this month of two new public charter schools. Lighthouse Charter opened with 139 students in transitional kindergarten through second grade, while Empowering Possibilities International Charter, or EPIC, opened with 350 students in K-8.

“There hasn’t been a charter movement in West Sacramento; there has been a movement of specific parents,” said West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon. “Particular groups of parents have said we want an additional option for our kids right now.”

River Charter Schools opened Lighthouse Charter at the request of West Sacramento parents who were sending their children 15 miles to its Delta Elementary Charter School, said Superintendent Stephen Lewis. The Delta school, which opened in 2007, has drawn as many as 188 students annually from West Sacramento. It now has a waiting list.

Gateway Community Charter opened EPIC after parents asked for an International Baccalaureate program in West Sacramento, said Jason Sample, director of community engagement and development for the charter school system. IB programs have a rigorous curriculum and a reputation for sending graduates to top universities.

A number of West Sacramento children are going to charter, public and private schools outside the community to be educated, Cabaldon said. He hopes some of the new charters will bring students back to the city.

Washington Unified’s new superintendent, Linda Luna, says she hasn’t been around long enough to know whether the district is losing students to charter schools, but enrollment numbers show the district is growing.

“My philosophy is whether it’s charter, whether it’s private, whether it’s our public education system, it’s really about making sure all students in the city are well-served,” Luna said.

When Lighthouse Charter opened on Aug. 21, families were welcomed by Cabaldon and other dignitaries – along with Slamson and Dinger, the respective mascots of the Kings and River Cats sports teams. Parent Ali Steele watched proudly as her daughter Kellyanne, 4, competed against the mascots in a dance-off, while more than 200 parents and children cheered her on.

Steele had already enrolled Kellyanne in transitional kindergarten at Delta Elementary when she learned of the plans for Lighthouse Charter. She joined a team of parents who spent months helping to plan the school, recruit students and attend Washington Unified board meetings to persuade the board to approve its charter.

“I wanted my daughter to grow up in West Sacramento,” Steele said, emotion cracking her voice. “I want her to know she is part of something that can make a difference, and that parents will fight tooth and nail to make it happen.”

Steele said she decided to move her daughter – who has high-functioning autism – from special education in Washington Unified because she did not think the district involved parents enough. “Parents want to be involved,” Steele said. “It’s what creates a family atmosphere in the school.”

For now, Lighthouse Charter is housed in two churches across from each other along Park Boulevard. Transitional kindergarten and first grade meet in Trinity Presbyterian Church, upper grades at First Baptist Church.

The school had to find temporary housing after toxins were discovered last September on its land, which had been donated by Richland Communities. The development company promised to clean up the property, but that could still take two to three years, said Peter Stone, the chief business officer for River Charter Schools.

EPIC, which opened on Aug. 12, occupies the top floor of a commercial building in Southport.

One of the selling points for the school is that it teaches both Russian and Spanish. Many of the families served by Gateway Charters are Slavic and they wanted a school where their children could retain their home language, Sample said. School officials plan to add another language in the future, but students will decide which, he said.

“We are just excited to be an educational provider in West Sacramento,” Sample said. “West Sacramento is a very unique community that is experiencing explosive growth.”

The two charters join West Sacramento Early College Prep, Sacramento Valley Charter School and Heritage Peak charters in West Sacramento.

The upbeat tenor of the school opening ceremonies came with great hope for the future, despite the tenuous history of charter schools in the city.

West Sacramento Early College Prep, located just around the corner from Lighthouse Charter, has had such low test scores that the California Charter School Association asked for its closure in 2011 and 2013. The charter school is run by UC Davis, Sacramento City College and Washington Unified School District.

Another charter, California College Career & Technical Education Center, opened at the beginning of 2010 with 180 ninth- and 10th-graders in a 164,000-square-foot leased building and had plans to expand. The school closed at the beginning of the following school year because of financial difficulties, according to media reports.

“Yes, those kind of charters are problematic, since most have been single-site charters and not part of charter school networks like KIP, Aspire or the ones on Oprah,” said Cabaldon, adding that he’d like to see these larger charter networks come to West Sacramento.

Gateway Charters, which runs EPIC, operates seven schools in the region, while River City Charter operates two.

Starting a charter school requires time and resources. “You don’t get a test run,” Cabaldon said. “You can’t try it for a year to see how it goes. These are real children. You have to be at 100 percent on Week One.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

Charter facts

What is a charter school?

Charter schools generally are organized by teachers, parents, community groups or nonprofits. The charters are granted by a school district, county office of education or the state for a fixed period of time, usually five years in California. They are exempted from some of the laws that apply to public schools but must meet student performance goals outlined in their charters.

How are they funded?

California charter schools are public and can’t charge tuition. They receive much of the same funding as regular public schools.