Tipping Point

Why a school in one of Sacramento’s wealthiest neighborhoods is failing rapidly

Bret Harte Elementary School is located in one of Sacramento’s more prosperous neighborhoods, Curtis Park. Homes with gardener-tended lawns and budding hydrangea bushes line the street across from the school. Range Rovers and BMWs sit on some of the driveways.

A neighborhood like this would normally signal that the school is performing well.

But Bret Harte is rapidly failing. Less than 10 percent of its students are meeting the state’s standards, and many of the neighborhood children whose homes surround the school don’t bother to enroll there.

Every morning, scores of students, mostly children of color, walk across a pedestrian bridge from Oak Park on the east side of Highway 99 to attend classes at Bret Harte. Meanwhile, many of the hundreds of school-age children from Curtis Park get into cars and ride to schools outside their own neighborhood.

Amanda Vargas has lived in her Oak Park home for seven years. Her son, Benjamin, crossed the pedestrian bridge to get to Bret Harte every weekday until he completed elementary school in June. Vargas called the daily trip “nerve-wrecking” for her, and said it was equally frustrating to see that many of the school-age children living in Curtis Park were not at Bret Harte.

“I don’t think they want their kids mixing with the low income kids,” Vargas said. “I don’t think it’s always about test scores.”

Few schools represent the economic and racial divide in Sacramento more than Bret Harte, its enrollment boundaries cut in half by a dirty, noisy freeway. The abandonment of the school by Curtis Park parents offers a stark reminder that Sacramento’s open-enrollment policy, which for two decades has allowed children to attend schools outside of their own neighborhoods, has inflicted unintended consequences in some areas.


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This story, by Sacramento Bee schools and education accountability reporter Sawsan Morrar, examines how one school’s student body represents the economic and racial divide in Sacramento, and how open enrollment in city schools has had unintended consequences.

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Bret Harte stands out because it produces some of the lowest test scores in the region, in a neighborhood that can afford to lavish attention and money on its children. The elementary school is located on the west side of the highway in Curtis Park, which is home to about 5,400 residents and only a couple of miles southeast of downtown.

The median income in the Curtis Park neighborhood is around $110,000, about 75 percent higher than the citywide median — and much wealthier than the east side of the enrollment boundaries in Oak Park.

In the last school year, just 7 percent of Bret Harte students met state English and Language Arts standards. Of the roughly 370 elementary schools in the Sacramento region, only one had a lower percentage of students meeting English standards than Bret Harte — Arden Arcade’s Dyer-Kelly Elementary School.

At the same time, just 6 percent of Bret Harte students met state math standards, the fifth-lowest rate in the region.

Census data indicates that many of the students attending Bret Harte are children from Oak Park, which is within the school’s attendance zone. About 69 percent of Curtis Park residents are white, compared to about 12 percent of Bret Harte students. Only about 7 percent of Curtis Park residents live below the poverty line, but nearly 90 percent of Bret Harte students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

School integration made national headlines during the first Democratic presidential debate in June. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris criticized former Vice President Joe Biden’s work to curtail busing policies in the 1970s. Though the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 to desegregate schools, many schools in the U.S. lack racial integration now as they did then.

When it was designed, Sacramento City Unified School District’s open enrollment policy aimed to help integrate students and give parents in low-performing areas the opportunity to find better-performing schools for their children. The Sacramento City Unified board approved the plan in 1998 and since then, Sacramento has produced several open enrollment, high-performing schools.

The Sacramento community long opposed the idea of busing minority and white students to schools throughout the 1980s. Instead, a group called School/Community Partnership Committee recommended the district use voluntary measures to desegregate schools. “We want the best voluntary program in the nation,” Archalene Martin, director of Integrated Education, told The Sacramento Bee in 1987. “That is our objective.”

But there were obstacles, including uncertainty about where the funding would come from to support a large-scale effort to integrate schools, and the district’s inability to control housing patterns that lead to segregation, particularly between Curtis Park and Oak Park.

At the same time, Oak Park families were adamantly pushing to have their own school on their side of the freeway. But district officials were concerned that it would further segregate students, and delayed the building of a new school, Father Keith B. Kenny Elementary School, until the 1990s. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Oak Park children were bused to at least a dozen other schools, including Bret Harte, in an effort to desegregate.

Some parents opposed open enrollment, as well as science and math magnet programs that attracted minority children to their schools, because it would bring “racial problems on the playground,” as one mother told The Bee in 1988.

City Councilman Jay Schenirer, who lives in Curtis Park, was on the Sacramento City Unified school board when his two sons attended Bret Harte in 1996 and 1998. During that time, the district approved the switch to open enrollment, and he witnessed the effects of it firsthand.

Schenirer’s older son’s kindergarten classroom had 13 students who lived in Curtis Park. Two years later, his other son was the only resident in his kindergarten classroom.

“We worked very hard to try to get parents to send their children there,” Schenirer recalled. “People were looking at overall test scores and how the schools were doing.”

Now, Bret Harte is losing students at a marked rate. Last school year, 253 students were enrolled in the school, down from 475 a decade ago. Enrollment was down among not just white students, but also black, Asian and Hispanic students.

While it isn’t clear why each family has left Bret Harte, some parents say they have moved their children to Phoebe Hearst or Leonardo da Vinci Elementary for practical reasons: better test scores and better reputations.

Ken McPeters, the district’s director of enrollment, echoed this and listed the primary reasons families move their children out of their neighborhood schools through open enrollment: finding a school nearer to where the parent works, better child care options, and simply wanting a different school. Some parents may be concerned about test scores, or others may not like their local school’s administration.

Chrissy Venditti moved into her Curtis Park home eight years ago, just across the street from Bret Harte. Her 6-year-old son, Angelo, started kindergarten last fall — at Leonardo da Vinci Elementary, which they secured through the open enrollment’s lottery system. The school is about 2 miles from her home. Her 4-year-old daughter will automatically enroll in Leonardo da Vinci’s transitional kindergarten since she has a sibling already attending the school.

When Venditti purchased the home, she said she didn’t know that Bret Harte’s test scores were low until her mother and sister — both educators — told her. She said choosing another school through open enrollment was her way of advocating for her children who depend on her.

“We have wonderful families that come through and bring their kids to school here [at Bret Harte], wonderful community participation. They have pancake breakfast that we go to every year,” she said. “But from a score standpoint that shows the academic rigor, that’s really where the choice was.”

Venditti said in a perfect world, every school should meet the standards and expectations of the district and its parents.

“I would like to see all of our schools come up to a higher level, so parents don’t have to move their children from one area to another area,” she said.

Bret Harte scores poorly on the California School Dashboard, a state-run website that uses data to provide an overview of California schools.

With its reputation in tatters, the school is trying to rebuild. Former Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jose Banda hired Principal James Tucker at Bret Harte three years ago in part to attract families back to the school.

Since then, Tucker has helped strengthen the Parent Teachers Association, create a mindfulness yoga program, a strong year-round gardening program, and a focus on technology. Every student has a laptop in their classroom at Bret Harte.

Bret Harte’s chronic absenteeism has decreased by four percentage points this last school year — the highest among all schools in the district.

“I know these numbers matter,” Tucker said on speaking about the test scores. “But we have made a lot of gains. The whole culture has shifted. We are shedding that historical fear that families in Curtis Park have that this is not the best choice for their kids.”

To do that, Tucker holds a school tours day each year. His first year, he said, very few families came. But this past year, 35 Curtis Park families toured the school, and most of them chose to enroll in Bret Harte.

“We are taking them in and demystifying what Bret Harte is about,” he said.

Follow more of our reporting on Sacramento City Unified in Crisis

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.
Phillip Reese is a data specialist at The Sacramento Bee and an assistant professor of journalism at Sacramento State. His journalism has won the George Polk and Worth Bingham awards, and he was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.