Right now, we should be getting ready for the first day of school at Promise Academy, a new charter school proposed for downtown San Jose that was approved in January.
Instead, we are facing the possibility that our school will be delayed a year because San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) is refusing us a home – even after an order from a judge to offer space.
For two years, our parent group has been working to open this new public school. And every step of the way, the local school district has done everything it can to stop us. All we want is a good education for our children so they can avoid poverty and will have a better future. This is critical so that they will be able to survive here in San Jose, especially with the high cost of living in this beautiful city. The people that we believed would be on our side, who are supposed to be dedicated to the education of children, have instead intimidated parents and silenced our voices.
This week, San Jose Unified has one last opportunity to do the right thing and offer us the space we need to open. We only need five classrooms. District records show there is more than enough space at several different downtown schools, but still SJUSD refuses to budge.
Our journey started when our children were starting to enter school. Like all parents, we looked at how the schools in our neighborhood were doing and tried to find good options. Unfortunately, in downtown San Jose, there is not much to choose from. The downtown schools have been underperforming for years. Right now, just 12% of Latino students are proficient in math and 29% in English.
When we were invited to a community meeting on education, we came to learn more. There we met each other, other parents, and Dr. Anthony Johnson, the founder of Promise Academy. We shared common concerns – the education of our children and of all the children in our community.
Quickly we came together around a common dream – a new school. We dreamed of a school that would be like a family, where our children would be motivated and have access to technology. We wanted a school where children would believe that they can fulfill their goals because they are not alone, they would have their teachers and parents with them and supporting them. Every step of the way, Dr. Anthony Johnson was with us. Dr. Johnson was always listening to the opinions of the parents, addressing all our questions and doubts. Each of us decided to support and be part of this dream of Promise Academy.
Little did we know what a fight we would face.
Throughout the whole year, we had many meetings, reached out to many more parents and asked our public officials to meet with us about our concerns and why we wanted to bring Promise Academy to downtown San Jose. From the very first interactions with the school district, we learned that they were not as alarmed as we were about the quality of the schools in our community. District officials were not planning to take urgent action. While two of the school board members were supportive of our plan to open Promise Academy, a majority told us that they were not supportive. Those who met with us said that if the charter school petition met all legal requirements, we would receive a fair hearing.
That turned out not to be the case.
We submitted the petition with 300 parent signatures in support of the school in April 2017. Before the public hearing, SJUSD started making confusing “verification calls” to parents, asking if they planned to stay enrolled in their current school or go to Promise, which wasn’t yet approved. Sometimes the calls were in English when the parent spoke Spanish. The district called during working hours when most parents are at work, then gave very little time for the parent to call back.
When we showed up at the school board meeting for the public hearing, with no warning, the district said they would not even accept nor consider our petition because they claimed it didn’t have enough signatures based on their unfair system. Then they tried to move on to the next item on the agenda. They were going to refuse to accept the charter petition without any hearing at all.
We were confused and scared. So we spoke up. We said we weren’t leaving without a hearing and called on the board to listen to the testimony of the parents.
The board’s response to a room full of parents asking for a quality education for our kids? The board called the police. At a moment when many in our Latino community are afraid, these officials tried to silence and intimidate us when all we want is a quality education for our children.
After lots of back and forth, the school board finally gave us a chance to be heard. A month later, the board denied the school, 3-2.
Over the months to come, we went through the appeal to the county, then up to the State Board of Education. Many parents stayed out for long evening meetings and lost work days to attend hearings in Sacramento. But that’s how far we had to go just to get our school approved.
We were so full of joy and hope when the State Board of Education (SBE) approved our petition unanimously in January. Almost immediately, SJUSD was part of a lawsuit against the SBE, claiming that our school wasn’t legally authorized.
Meanwhile, we focused on getting a facility for our school. We submitted signatures of support for our facilities application under Proposition 39. Again, the district claimed to “invalidate” signatures and refused to offer space. When the district refused to even make us an offer of space, Promise Academy filed a lawsuit. It was a last resort.
Last month, the Santa Clara County Superior court sided with us, ruling that the district acted “subjectively, arbitrarily and capriciously” in denying facilities to our school. Another judge also sided with us on the lawsuit against SBE showing that our approval was valid.
Finally, the district issued a facilities offer, as mandated by law, but even that offer seemed designed to prevent our school from serving its families. The space is far from downtown San Jose, where most of our families live. Our families united around the desire for a great neighborhood school. Many of us rely on public transportation and have jobs where commuting an hour round-trip each day for pick-up and drop-off is simply not financially or logistically feasible.
If San Jose Unified doesn’t offer our school a space downtown this week, we won’t be able to open for another year.
We started this journey to get an education for our kids. But we got an education too – in how our system works to deny low-income families of color a voice. We teach our kids that it’s never too late to do the right thing. San Jose Unified, please show us that’s true.
We are proud to be some of the many parent leaders who have worked so hard to bring this school to downtown San Jose for the past two years and who are fighting for the education of low-income children in our community. You can learn more about Promise Academy here.
Written by Yolanda Bernal-Samano, Adelita Gomez and Eva Heredia.
She began her leadership at Rocketship Discovery Prep four years ago. She learned that there was so much ore that she could do as a parent beyond volunteering in her children’s classroom. Eva became fully aware of the political involvement a parent must act on.
She has experience and extensive knowledge about public officials, school board members and school administrators who play an important role in public education in East Side San Jose. Besides being a champion for high quality education and choice, she also helped build the Wooster Neighborhood Association in her community. She is the voice for her children, students and her community. She is a huge supporter for parent engagement, choice and access to higher education.
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