THE BLOG
08/05/2013 12:25 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

Summit Charters a Course to East Bay?

Meg Whitman is coming to El Cerrito to open up a charter school!

Okay, there's more to the story. Whitman is on the board of directors of Summit Public Schools, a private charter school organization in Silicon Valley, and Summit is proposing to start a charter school in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. The failed gubernatorial candidate and Hewlett Packard CEO may not even know about Summit's plan because she has attended fewer than half of the Summit board's meetings since she joined in 2012. No matter. Her fellow board members -- venture capitalists and financial industry titans, like Robert Oster of the Hoover Institution -- follow Summit CEO Diane Tavenner in her quest to infiltrate public school systems and reform them -- for their own good.

Summit was invited to West Contra Costa by Steve and Susan Chamberlin, a philanthropic couple who purchased an historic property in El Cerrito with a school in mind. The property, an old Chinese orphans school, surveys the bay from its stunning hilltop location and was until recently a private school. The Chamberlins talked with other charter groups, as well as the public school district, but decided on Summit, according to Julie Wright, head of the Chamberlin Family Foundation.

"Summit has a great track record of serving this population," Wright told me, referring to the ethnic/racial and income mix of district students. "I don't want something here that is not wanted by the community." She acknowledged, though, that "there won't be universal support."

You can say that again. The WCC School Board is skeptical, to say the least, about charters. It nixed a petition this year from Caliber charters to open a school in Richmond, with a harsh critique of Caliber's application. Although the Board has approved charters, some members have concerns about how even the most well-intentioned private ventures are eroding the foundation of the public school system.

"In general, when a charter group comes in, they are looking to bring the most engaged parents and students," Madeline Kronenberg, school board president told me. "Summit will take 100 percent of those students, and the most at-risk students will be left behind. I can't explain to teachers who lose those parents that they will have to double up on their passion."

Board member Todd Groves sent his own kids to the district schools and knows their challenges and frustrations. But he sees charters like Summit as the wrong solution to what ails them. "The public school system is the fabric of the nation, and to have these essentially private school experiences in the public system will have unintended consequences," Groves told me. "We have our struggles, no doubt about it, but offering a deluge of scattered options, I don't see how it helps. I think we're actually making progress, and this could hurt."

Tavenner is a star in the charter school constellation -- featured in the pro-charter, anti-teachers-union film "Waiting for Superman," and chair of the state charter association. She admits the West Contra Costa school district is "less friendly than the peninsula" is to charter schools, but she believes the Summit formula will work there, whatever the demographics. There are significant differences. Summit's four schools are overwhelmingly white and Latino. Summit Prep and Everest, both in Redwood City, are more than more than 80 percent white and Latino, and about 5 percent African American. They're better off on average, too, with just 38 percent of Summit Prep students poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced price lunch. And Summit has fewer English-language learners (ELL) -- about 14 percent at its Redwood City schools.

At West County schools, 51 percent of students are Latino, 20 percent are black, and 11 percent are white. English learners are 33 percent of students, and 65 percent are eligible for free lunch. Tavenner says the new charter would be closer in demographics to Summit's east San Jose schools, which only opened in 2011 and have higher numbers of poor kids. Anyway, Summit's program -- a focus on college prep -- is the same whoever they're teaching, she told me. "What we look at in terms of demographics is diversity of student population and we try to be reflective of whatever community we're in."

Kronenberg ain't sold. "It's not diversity, it's the issue of engagement," she says. "Parental engagement is the driver. That is my issue. I don't need a study. I know what's going to happen to the schools that lose the most engaged parents and students."

Kronenberg and her fellow school board members will vote on the Summit charter petition this month, using five main criteria to judge it, including financials and track record in running schools. Kronenberg thinks the law should provide a sixth criterion: "I wish the law said, 'if you believe it will hurt the wider school community, you can deny the petition."

Stay tuned for more on the story of Summit's foray into the East Bay. Next up: the expulsion problem.