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Should Low-Performing Fresno Charter School Get More Time to Improve?

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A charter school in downtown Fresno classified as low-performing could get another two years to show academic improvement under a recommendation by the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools office.

It’s the latest chapter in the troubled history of Kepler Neighborhood School, a TK-8 elementary school on Broadway Street.

Three years ago Fresno Unified School District trustees denied the school’s request for a charter renewal because of poor test scores.

Kepler turned to the county Superintendent of Schools, which noted that test scores had been rising and the school was under new leadership when recommending that it get a three-year charter renewal. At that time the county board voted 4-1 for the renewal.

Charter schools are typically given five-year renewals unless the chartering agency has concerns about the school’s operations or academics. Low-performing schools are presumed to be not eligible for charter renewal unless schools take meaningful steps to address the causes of low performance and can show marked improvement in academic achievement.

Two-Year Renewal

The recommendation that county school trustees will take up at Thursday afternoon’s meeting is for a conditional two-year renewal, and the school’s academic performance will be subject to a review by county educators after one year.

Update: The county school trustees voted 4-1 Thursday afternoon to approve the conditional charter renewal after warning school officials that they have much work to do and not much time to do it in.

Kepler had sought a five-year charter renewal, but the team reviewing the school’s self-report determined that the school’s educational program did not adequately address how Kepler would improve the academic performance of two subgroups with the widest performance gaps, Hispanic and socio-economically disadvantaged students.

County educators worked with Kepler officials in February to develop an action plan that’s being submitted with the charter petition.

The California Charter Schools Association is supporting the two-year charter renewal recommendation, spokeswoman Ana Tintocalis said.

Three years ago, the association advocated for nonrenewal.

But the association has been working with Kepler to complete CCSA’s data review process, Tintocalis said. Although it’s “low track,” the school exceeds the minimum criteria of CCSA’s academic accountability framework, she said. The association uses its framework as a guide for advocating for charter renewals.

Of the association’s nine member schools that are low track, four charters have been approved, three denied, and two are in progress, including Kepler, Tintocalis said.

Kepler somewhat symbolizes the renaissance and growth that’s happening in downtown Fresno, but it’s also an education choice resource for families in southwest Fresno, said Marco Lopez, CCSA’s director of advocacy for the Central Valley.

And that resource was particularly important during distance learning, when Kepler made sure its students had the technology they needed to continue with their school work, he said.

Officials are optimistic that Kepler will continue to show growth in academic progress after the pandemic ends and students are back in their classrooms, he said. But if in a year or two Kepler is still deemed low track, “we would be firm in not advocating for them, not even helping them out.”

New Strategies Outlined

Kepler’s action plan is designed to pull up the school’s academic performance, said Nikki Lovelace, the school’s director of student services.

Kepler is focusing on those students who are most in need of interventions, providing the support they need, and also reaching out to families to see whether students have needs that the school can help meet, Lovelace said.

The school also is focusing on additional teacher training, she said.

“We will be doing training to be more culturally proficient, really understanding and learning about the children that are in front of you, the culture where they come from, and what we need to do to best fit their needs,” Lovelace said.

Kepler’s enrollment three years ago was 318 students from all over the city. But when the school leadership changed, she said, Kepler focused its outreach on students in surrounding neighborhoods as well as citywide, and that resulted in a demographics change at the school.

“We do still represent kids from all over Fresno, but we really want to make sure we have kids represented right down the street,” Lovelace said.

Kepler’s enrollment today is around 390, she said.

The school’s growing enrollment is one sign that Kepler has the support of the community and of parents who are confident in sending their children there, Lopez noted.

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