In the latest twist in a contentious debate over a proposed Novato charter school, two San Francisco civil rights groups have entered the fray, arguing the school could isolate minorities and poor students.
In a letter to Novato school board members, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California said the proposed North Bay Academy would likely attract a student body that is whiter and more wealthy than the district as a whole, harming students at other schools.
"Hispanic/Latino students, immigrant students, and low-income students would be left behind in schools that are more racially and socioeconomically isolated," the groups wrote in a joint letter to the seven Novato Unified School District board members.
Cecilia Chen, an attorney for the lawyers' committee whose signature appears on the letter, said the two organizations looked into the charter school at the request of members of Save Our Novato Schools, an opposition group.
She cited concerns about the racial makeup of the 365 students whose families signed a petition for the charter school, among whom only 13, or fewer than 4 percent, were Latino.
"Given the current demographics that are reflected in the petition, the current charter school raises concerns about which students are going to be served," Chen said in an interview.
Novato is not the first city where the lawyer's
committee has injected itself into a charter school debate. Earlier this year, the group participated in a lawsuit against the conversion of Santa Rosa's Doyle Park Elementary into a charter school, resulting in a settlement that kept Doyle Park open for at least a year.
"As charter schools become a bigger part of our public education system we do want to make sure they are serving all students equally," Chen said.
Robert Verhoeff, co-director of the North Bay Educational Foundation, the group spearheading the charter school effort, said the petition may not reflect the diversity of the eventual student body.
"NBEF appreciates the concerns outlined by the ACLU, although it is critical to note that the student population of the charter will not be determined by those that signed the charter petition, but by those that choose to enroll their children in the school," he wrote in an email. "As the enrollment process is not expected to occur until next spring, NBEF has many months to enact the Outreach Program outlined within its charter document to ensure all members of the Novato community are aware of the educational opportunity provided by the school."
Formally proposed in October, the North Bay Academy would open in fall 2013 with an estimated 544 students. Proponents have requested use of the former Hill Middle School, now an alternative education complex, or an unused district parcel in the Hamilton neighborhood.
The school would use a curriculum known as Core Knowledge, which includes detailed content standards in language arts, history, geography, math, science and the fine arts.
Supporters include many parents from Novato's Rancho Elementary School, a former magnet school that was transformed into a traditional neighborhood school last year, after an unsuccessful attempt to convert it into a charter.
The Novato school board is set to vote Dec. 18 on whether to approve the proposed North Bay Academy. Board President Cindi Clinton acknowledged receipt of the civil rights letter but declined to comment, saying she was still reviewing the petition.
An ACLU lawyer could not be reached for comment.
Lynne Wasley, a Novato grandmother and member of the district's diversity advisory committee, said she shares the concerns of the civil rights groups. She said the charter school could unintentionally harm other students in the district but reducing diversity and using up resources.
"I don't think their intent is to hurt anybody, but I think as they are busy looking for what is going to work for them and what they want, they are in fact hurting people," she said. "They are displacing people."
Tina McMillan, a Novato therapist who supports the charter proposal, said the curriculum is designed to help close the achievement gap. She called on the school district to help the charter school make contact with English-learners and economically disadvantaged students.
"A group of local parents who oppose the charter have sought to spread misinformation and fear in order to discourage parents and students from joining," she wrote in an email. "Approaching the ACLU is just one more example of the misguided efforts of this group to oppose an educational alternative that could very well help these diverse communities achieve higher levels of proficiency."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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