Sunday, September 25, 2011

BCS and the SCCOE

I had mentally told myself I was going to post less often about BCS, and more about District issues.  Then I received this letter.  I think it is important reading for everyone.  Anna Song, a Trustee of the Santa Clara County Office of Education, wrote this in response to a letter from Buffy Poon, parent of BCS students. I think Ms. song speaks eloquently about so many issues I've heard from community members over the past several years.

From: Anna Song

Date: Fri, Sep 23, 2011 at 10:29 AM

Subject: RE: The "So What"

To: Buffy Poon , "Joseph DiSalvo [External]" , Leon Beauchman , Michael Chang , Julia Hover-Smoot , Grace Mah , Craig Mann

Cc: Charles Weis , Carmen Aminzadeh , Anna Song , "" , "" , "" , "" , "" , "" , "" , "" , Cindy Chavez , "" , "" , "" , "" , "" , "" , "" , Jeffrey Baier

==Written communication to the board==
(This is in response to Ms. Poon’s email dated September 22, 2011. However, the BCS board members should also consider this as my formal communication to its board as a trustee on the Santa Clara County Board of Education. I am not communicating on behalf of the Santa Clara County Board of Education, and I am only writing the message as one member.)

Dear Ms. Poon and Bullis Charter School (BCS) community,

Thank you for expressing your thoughts.

When I commented on September 7, I seemed to have struck some nerves with my “So what?” comment with you and possibly with other parents in the audience as well. And I think that’s a good sign; I got your attention. But it is disappointing to learn that my comments were not taken in their entirety but some provocative words stood out more than the rest.

To me, “So what?” was meant to be a wake-up call. It was meant to point out that there is more for BCS to do than to educate your own. You may disagree. But in my opinion, BCS has more on its plate than any other neighborhood public schools.

A quick look at the Academic Performance Index scores for the Los Altos School District shows that BCS has performed abysmally in serving socioeconomically disadvantaged students. The numbers are so poor they could justify an immediate revocation hearing to cancel BCS’s charter and permanently shut down the school this term, in my opinion. BCS serves zero socioeconomically disadvantaged students. After eight years, you have zero. Zero. Los Altos School District reports 97 out of 3351 students are socioeconomically disadvantaged – a group of approximately three percent. LASD reports 380 of 3351 are English Language Learners. And, 406 of 3351 are Students with Disabilities. Also, 243 of 3351 are Latino. BCS reports 281 students in its recent API report. The comparable BCS ratios are: 0/281 are socioeconomically disadvantaged; 5/281 are English Language Learners; 18/281 are Students with Disabilities; 7/281 are Latino.

Additionally, BCS’ Parent Education Level is even more elite than LASD as a whole because BCS now serves zero families with a PEL below that of “some college.” BCS does not reflect the population of its school district.

By any measure, these numbers demonstrate BCS’ failure to meet state law as well as a disinterest in the legislative intent of Education Code 47601(b) that a charter shall “increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low-achieving.”

Page 3, section b of the BCS’ 2010-2011 Annual Charter School Report claims “BCS strives to attract, enroll, and retain the broadest spectrum of students and families who are representative of the general population residing within the territorial jurisdiction of the Los Altos School District.” Despite the Communications Committee’s report, I do not believe the claim. For example, BCS reports zero outreach in Spanish.

Sadly, after being a strong advocate of BCS from its first days, I now conclude that BCS is in material breach of its charter agreement with the Santa Clara County Board of Education. Moreso, I conclude the BCS community does not take the contract with SCCBOE seriously. I note a sense of entitlement from BCS’ population in general, especially from your letter. And, after reading your letter, I seriously question if Bullis’ future would be better served as a private school. There is nothing dishonorable about private education.

BCS’ 2010-2011 Annual Charter School Report states “BCS does not request parents to donate to the school.” However, in the same section, BCS states “BPESF’s suggested donation for the fall annual campaign is $4500 per student.” The editorial construction in this section is misleading and borders on duplicitous as it refers to “our families,” while simultaneously suggesting that parents are not requested to donate. It appears that all parents ARE requested to contribute a suggested donation of $4500 a year. Donations may not go to “the school,” but parents certainly feel that a price of admission to BCS is the requirement to raise money. That to me, is not a public school.

Unfortunately, under state law, BCS does not have the privilege to take its existence for granted because the school is not like neighborhood public schools. The underlying agreement is that if a charter school does not perform well, it ceases to exist. And, there are many required categories besides academic achievement to assess whether BCS meets the standard of “perform well.” Therefore, BCS, no matter how well academically performing, constantly will need to justify its existence. You may say that it is not fair, but it is the reality of a charter school.

And when the founders of BCS came forward asking the county board to authorize its existence eight years ago, educating your own children and doing it well was a given, a minimum standard - a floor, not the ceiling. That is what I meant when I said “So what?” Your student achievement scores are the floor, not the ceiling.

Please don’t get me wrong. My words do not mean I do not appreciate what BCS has accomplished. It does not mean that I do not value that “Bullis is shaping our next generation of leaders and change agents, youngsters who will make a difference in the world. Bullis is creating inspired, inquisitive problem solvers with a social consciousness to give back to the world” as you stated. However, BCS doing so is given, to me because BCS promised to do so many years ago. The BCS founders promised to educate, innovate, and stand out. I believed in BCS and I voted in favor. And I have been a strong supporter from day one.

That “So what” to me, is “show me something more.” Again, you may say that is not fair. It may not be fair, but in my opinion, performing well above neighborhood public schools is what BCS signed up to do, and promised to do, but that alone is not enough to justify its existence.

As a strong supporter of BCS from its inception, I have to justify my action to many different people and entities. Few are receptive to my belief in BCS, and many are not.

You said, “I was greatly saddened by the Board's repeated implication of an "us versus them" mentality with respect to social economic status. One could take that further and interpret some of the comments to imply that our children are not worth spending more time and energy on because their parents are not struggling to put food on the table and pay rent.”

Would it be hard for you to believe that I’ve actually had numerous people (some elected officials included) challenge me directly in ever so blunt words like “How can you let those rich people who can afford to send their kids to private schools take away public funding?” And every time, my response to them was, “If you can’t justify discriminating against the poor, you cannot justify discriminating against the rich either. And by the way, the rich pay taxes too.”

I will be honest. I was not implicating an "us versus them" mentality,” as you said. I was telling you that such a mentality is real and prevalent. Thus, my “So what?” was “what are you going to do about that while continuing to thrive?” As troublesome as it may be, ignoring such a mentality will do BCS more harm than good because BCS’ academic achievement by itself will not justify BCS’ continued existence in the future – especially given new trends in state education law. BCS cannot be complacent because its students are performing well on tests. BCS cannot be complacent that it has the support of the Santa Clara County Board of Education today, this year, this cycle. Because those naysayers are not going to change their minds no matter how great BCS is! In order for BCS to continue to exist, and to thrive, BCS has to add more value to public education as a whole, than just what BCS adds in a portion of your own community.

Perhaps you are not seeing that bigger picture. Perhaps you are not thinking 5 or 10 years down the road. But I am; I believe that is part of my job. So far, BCS has enjoyed the support of the majority of the members of the County Board of Education. But there will come a day when Anna Song is no longer on that board along with other board members whom BCS leaders have come to know. And if the new board majority one day happens to be made up of people who are more critical of the charter school movement, what justification will BCS give to continue to exist when a majority vote of the County Board of Education can dissolve Bullis’ existence at any time?

As a County Board member, I am constantly challenged with questions such as, “Should charter schools exist? Do they help public education? How can you justify a two-tier system? etc. etc.” The recent question with which I have struggled is, “Twenty years from now, would you look back and say charter schools helped or hurt public education?”

I struggled with that question because I honestly cannot conclude with a simple all-purpose answer one way or the other. I like to believe that the charters are helping, challenging, and improving our public education. But if all charters are doing is educating a limited cross-section of students whose parents are highly involved while not sharing best practices with traditional neighborhood public schools, I cannot, in good conscience, say that charters help the overall public school experience. And, I cannot disagree that we are creating a two-tiered system. That is what I meant by “So what? What’s next?”

You said, “We who have more should have more responsibility to the rest of the world” and I could not agree more. I think I’ve said something along the line “to whom much is given, much is expected” during the September 7th board meeting.

You continued, “and I believe that Bullis teaches that to our children as it encourages global citizenship and empowers our children to take action.” In my opinion, I think you should teach your children by your actions. Show them what “global citizenship” looks like by your actions. That’s what I meant by “So what?” Show me, don’t tell me. And, perhaps, rather than just focusing on global citizenship, Bullis should focus on county-wide citizenship. Your school is chartered by the Santa Clara County Board of Education. Perhaps the international field trips should be supplemented by field trips and service projects in challenged communities within Santa Clara County. Or, even more so, perhaps the local focus should be an even higher priority than global travel.

You said in your third point, “If we had more funding, we parents and teachers could do a lot more...Until we get more funding from another source, it would be very difficult for the school to take on more Board mandated projects without diluting the very qualities that make Bullis what it is.”

I disagree and I think you are contradicting yourself. You said in your second point that those “who have more should have more responsibility to the rest of the world” and yet, you fall back on a lack of funding to argue you could not do more. Lack of funding is not a unique problem to BCS alone. And, seriously, BCS has more access to private funding than probably any other public school in the state of California. Almost every other public school - charter or neighborhood - has less funding than BCS. And we may not see more funding in this state in our lifetimes. So if BCS sits on a “lack of funding” excuse for its inaction, I may never see the “global citizenship” in action locally.

I was extremely saddened to read your words:

While we hope to be able to share lessons across our communities, the actions that work for one community might not work in another community because we are all struggling with different issues. I would love if we could take "the lessons" from a more economically distressed district and apply them to Bullis and vice versa, but I could see the reality that many of those lessons wouldn't translate.”
Though you seem to express how appalled you are “by the Board's repeated implication of an "us versus them" mentality,” your last words I quote above seem to reflect your own "us versus them" beliefs.

It is no secret that BCS and its local school board, Los Altos School District, do not see things eye to eye. BCS did not enjoy a collaborative working relationship with LASD eight years ago, and I don’t see either side moving forward anytime soon. It has been eight years…

Thus, I said and continue to say, “So what?” to all BCS members clearly knowing it is a provocative comment. In case you have not thought about it, I want you to know that as an elected official, it is much easier for me to offer compliments and niceties to a crowd than to offer criticisms and suggestions. All of you would love me if I just complimented your achievements, and voted your way. But I can’t do that. There are so many children who can benefit from your innovation, and generosity. And I feel time is running out.

I have been called names and labeled as “tough” & “harsh” by many charter school applicants. Some have told me that my support was a nice surprise given all the tough questions I’ve asked. I take that as a compliment. I am taking my job as an elected trustee seriously, and would rather ask tough questions and offer stinging criticisms so BCS (or any other schools) may improve than be concerned of my own popularity.

And, please note that only one of seven County Board members is elected by Los Altos voters. The other six areas all have a significant number of Title One schools in their boundaries and thus all County Board trustees want to see some empathy and hands-on passion for the challenges we face in our shared home of Santa Clara County. When Bullis appealed its denial by the local Los Altos School District Board, the County Board did not step into the shoes of your local Board for a do-over. Rather, we provided an alternate second consideration from a county perspective. My sincere hope is that Bullis will earn many decades of successful charter renewal as the school demonstrates a passionate contribution to public education throughout Santa Clara County.

I am saddened to find myself in conclusion, that after having been a strong supporter of BCS for eight years, I am extremely turned off by your sense of entitlement, and lack of understanding in what it means to be part of public education. I am looking forward to BCS’ presentation coming up in October. I sincerely hope that the BCS community, including you, will come up with better justification than what you sent below.

Anna E. Song
SCCBOE Trustee, Area Five


From: [] On Behalf Of Buffy Poon
Sent: Thursday, September 22, 2011 2:06 PM

To: Joseph DiSalvo [External]; Leon Beauchman; Michael Chang; Julia Hover-Smoot; Grace Mah; Craig Mann; Anna Song
Cc: Carmen Aminzadeh
Subject: The "So What"

Dear Board Members of the Santa Clara County of Education:

I am a parent of three Bullis Charter School students: a fourth-grader, a second grader, and a kindergartener.

On September 7th, I attended the Bullis Charter School charter renewal hearing, where I listened intently to the Board's comments. Afterwards, I could not stop thinking about them and felt compelled to let you know how distressed I am about several comments made by board members.
First, I was struck by Ms. Song's comment, "so what?" in regard to the many great things the school has achieved since its inception. To me, the "so what" is that Bullis is shaping our next generation of leaders and change agents, youngsters who will make a difference in the world. Bullis is creating inspired, inquisitive problem solvers with a social consciousness to give back to the world.

For example, my eldest son constantly talks about how he wants to study science and create a clean, renewable energy source to benefit the animals and humans on our planet. A few weeks ago, he was brainstorming about a potential computer application that he could sell and then give the earnings back to Bullis to build a science lab. I think if we were studying Bullis' students decades from now, we could see that many of them became impactful contributors to our world. I could see many of them, inspired by the incredible staff who work passionately on their behalf, becoming compelling, effective educators themselves, helping to solve the education gap. Many of them will enter public service, having been empowered by the environment Bullis creates to effect change. I could see many of them as scientists, having developed the passion for lifelong learning and inquiry that Bullis fosters. Some, having learned at Bullis that once can engage people with different media, will become artists able to convey powerful messages. This "so what" is no small or common achievement, and I do not want to see it curtailed.

Second, I was greatly saddened by the Board's repeated implication of an "us versus them" mentality with respect to social economic status. One could take that further and interpret some of the comments to imply that our children are not worth spending more time and energy on because their parents are not struggling to put food on the table and pay rent. I believe that if we can encourage all children, economically privileged or not, to develop to their full potential with effective public education, we will benefit society as a whole. We who have more should have more responsibility to the rest of the world, and I believe that Bullis teaches that to our children as it encourages global citizenship and empowers our children to take action.

Third, I commend Bullis' teachers and staff for taking on such an overwhelming workload and still innovating new ways to enrich our children's educational and social experience. If we had more funding, we parents and teachers could do a lot more. Unfortunately, we struggle every year just to meet the funding gap between how much it costs to educate our children versus how much state funding we get. The majority of the money from the funding gap comes directly from our parent population. Until we get more funding from another source, it would be very difficult for the school to take on more Board mandated projects without diluting the very qualities that make Bullis what it is.

The Board has a huge undertaking with its commitment to SJ2020. I can imagine the pressure that you are under to close the achievement gap in San Jose by 2020. While you focus on those 40,000 students who are not proficient in their grade level skills, I ask that you not turn your backs on students in other districts who face different challenges.

I am a child of immigrants to the United States. Our family struggled financially through the years. I moved nine times as a child because my father was mentally ill and kept getting fired from his job. They struggled to give me the best education they could, given their circumstances. However, when I told my parents that I wanted to become a teacher, they told me they would stop paying my tuition and pull me out of college. They worried that I would struggle economically like they did, and didn't want that for their child. I, on the other hand, have the luxury of not being afraid that my children’s basic needs won’t be met, and I can encourage them to reach higher. I would be proud if they became educators, artists, writers, or musicians.

It takes all of us, the "haves" and the "have nots" (I cringe to use such blunt distinctions), to help improve the world. While we hope to be able to share lessons across our communities, the actions that work for one community might not work in another community because we are all struggling with different issues. I would love if we could take "the lessons" from a more economically distressed district and apply them to Bullis and vice versa, but I could see the reality that many of those lessons wouldn't translate. However, if we can find ways to work together within and across our communities to provide relevant, inspiring education for all our children, we can develop highly effective leaders and implementers for our world.


Buffy Poon

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Working on Sacramento from Los Altos

Assemblyman Rich Gordon, who represents our district in Sacramento, has created an Educational Advisory Council, made of of Board Members, Administrators, and other leaders in education. I'm honored to be asked to participate. WE met for the first time today and discussed a number of issues facing the education community.

First on our agenda was discussing the impact of the budget, particularly the "handcuffs" it places on local school boards. This year's budget contains a number of triggers that would automatically cut revenues mid-year if certain economic indicators don't continue at the rosy pace they were hitting in May and June. Mid-year cuts aren't new, but this year's budget specifically prohibits local school boards from cutting certificated personnel (teachers) in responser to the cuts. I politely expressed my frustration with this, and told Asm. Gordon that I felt this was an unprecedented (and probably illegal) intrusion of Sacramento into the business of local school districts. Rest assured that the other districts felt equally unhappy with the law. Hopefully if the Assembly is called back into session in December, they'll address this issue.

We also discussed a number of other items folks would like to see improved:
  • Clean up Ed Code 35021. This law makes it illegal to have a volunteer do any job previously held by a district employee. We talked about the inability to have parents supplement in the libraries and in aide positions. This problem is felt across many districts. It isn't my intent to replace our valuable employees with all-volunteers. However, it's hard to explain to parents why it is better to not have a program than to have volunteers help make it more cost effective.
  • One of the other districts also mentioned the entire idea of outsourcing- the fact that we can't subcontract any of the work we have done. Simple examples like lawn mowing came up as areas where we could hire a service to do the work, rather than maintain tractors ourselves.
  • We talked about AB1034, which would require charter schools to make efforts to serve students in under-served groups (such as economically disadvantaged kids, and English Language Learners). See my previous post for more information on this topic.
  • We talked about the impact of redistricting, and the elimination of the Department of Education at the State level.

Overall, I felt the meeting was very positive, but clearly there's a lot on the legislative agenda. I don't know how quickly any of this will pass into law, but it was a great discussion. I look forward to working with the Assemblyman on his initiatives.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

BCS Charter Renewal

Attached is a letter I sent to the Santa Clara County School Board regarding the renewal of the BCS charter. In it, I've made some suggestions for how I believe BCS might better reach out to groups that they are currently underserving.

As always, this reflects my personal views, and isn't a statement about District policy. Feel free, though, to send comment to me at my district email address.


Board Members and Superintendent Weiss:

Unfortunately I am unable to attend this evening's Board meeting due to business travel, but I am sending this letter to reflect my opinions on the renewal of the BCS charter.

BCS has an impressive track record, and recently achieved very high scores on the STAR test. They are to be congratulated for that achievement, but it comes with something of an asterisk.

As you consider this application from Bullis Charter School for renewal, I would respectfully request that you consider placing some conditions on BCS as part of that renewal. Many of these are contemplated in legislation pending before the California Assembly. Rather than "sneaking by" before the legislation is passed, let's step up ahead of Sacramento, and require equality today. Don't wait to be told that we have to treat students equally- do it because it is the right thing to do.

I would like to request that, as a condition of their charter, BCS be required to implement a plan to achieve parity with the local district in the recruiting and educating English Language Learners, Economically Disadvantaged Students, and Special Needs Students.

English Language Learners
BCS should be required to actively recruit from the full spectrum of language learners that are present in our community. Approximately 8% of LASD students speak a language other than English at home. LASD not only provides recruiting materials in multiple languages, but we also provide translations throughout the year for both written documents and parent-faculty discussions. By doing so, we ensure our ELL families are fully included in the education of their students, and that those students have the best possible opportunity to thrive in our district.

In the several BCS recruitment nights I've attended, I have observed no materials in languages other than English. I have seen no signs or other indications that interpreters are available for the first meeting, let alone throughout the year. This passive discrimination is unlawful in public schools, BCS (and all charter schools) should be required to comply with the law and ensure they are serving all students in our area.

Economically Disadvantaged Students
Charter schools are meant to serve all public schools, yet BCS has created a program which caters to wealthy families. Their recruiting night features discussions of expensive overseas trips and a hard sell from their fundraising group. I believe these actions are designed to ensure that only families of substantial financial means apply to their program

At the BCS recruiting nights, I have personally listened to the presentation from the Bullis Boosters Club. The BBC explains that they need at least $5000 per student in additional contributions from parents to offer their program. They make statements like "I wouldn't feel right enrolling my child if I wasn't able to contribute at that level."

One need only examine the BCS student data to realize that their free/reduced lunch population is distinctly absent compared with that of the Los Altos School District. To create a financial barrier to entry is akin to charging tuition, something expressly forbidden in the Charter School Act.

(To see this financial pressure more clearly, simply conult the BCS Foundation website

We understand that for some of our families, a tax deductible donation of $5,000 per student is simply not feasible. We ask that families openly discuss their situation with a Foundation member as early as possible and donate as much as they are able towards covering the funding gap, recognizing that other school families will need to make up the difference. A broad participation is what makes our funding model sustainable!

They present the $5000 donation as closing some funding gap compared to LASD. However, LASD spends approximately $8500 per student compared to the BCS spend of $13,400. The math speaks for itself.

Special Needs Students
Finally, BCS should be required to create and operate a meaningful program for special needs students. Any public school district can explain the cost of special needs students. LASD serves students who may require upwards of $150,000 per year to educate. Parents in our community are very bright and well informed. They research schools carefully, and many have chosen our district because of the program we provide. The few students they do serve are, to my understanding, very mildly impacted by their disabilities. Parents of students with severe disabilities are discouraged from applying. By not having a meaningful program for special needs students, BCS effectively shirks their responsibility to the community, leaving LASD to bear the financial cost of this type of program.

BCS may assert that their program does serve the needs of these various student groups, but the statistics would show otherwise. Compared to the LASD, they have virtually no students with severe disabilities. Their ELL population is nearly non-existent. Their STAR test data further reveals that they have no students who are economically disadvantaged. If charter schools are about serving the needs of all students, then let's require that charter schools do exactly that- serve the needs of the school population.

Let's not wait for a law to require us to treat students equally.



Douglas J. Smith
Board of Trustees, Los Altos School District