By Miriam Raftery |  July 6, 2019 (East County Magazine)

Three nonprofit charter schools operating within the Grossmont Union High School District (GUHSD) have been ordered shut down by a judge, but now a stay issued has been ordered for one year until an appeal can be heard.

The schools at risk of closure are Diego Valley East charter in El Cajon and San Diego Workforce Innovation High charter schools in Lakeside and Lemon Grove.

Grossmont has refused to authorize these charters, which are independently operated and get average daily attendance money from the state which would otherwise flow to public schools.

Diego Valley East was authorized by the Julian Elementary District and Borrego Springs Unified authorized the two San Diego Workforce Innovation High charter schools. Each school has an independent board and operate under the statewide Learn4Life charter school brand

The ruling does not apply to charters approved by the GUHSD, such as Helix and Steele Canyon.

Grossmont’s attorney, Sarah Sutherland, has argued that the charters lack accountability and that oversight fees provide incentives for small districts to open charters without adequate supervision.

Photo: Students protesting at GUHSD board meeting in 2015, when the district first launched efforts to shut down Diego Valley charter school

Two years ago, the Anderson USD vs. Shasta court case resulted in a ruling prohibiting charter schools in California from operating outside geographic boundaries of the authorizing school district within the same county. A governor’s task force has recommended banning a district from opening charters outside its own district boundaries and Assembly Bill 1507 would enact the ban starting next year.

Debbra Hoffman, a mother with two students at the school, told East County Magazine in an email in June, “This is the saddest news my community has encountered in education…As a parent I am frustrated and appalled at the turn of events.”

Closure would force 1,000 students to seek new schools—if they can find a high school that will accept them. Borrego Springs Unified Superintendent Mark Stevens told the San Diego Union-Tribune in an e-mail, “If these schools close, it will mean that hundreds of students will be deprived of finishing their education.”

Hoffman says her two teenagers have had “exceptional experiences with teachers and counselors that keep them on track with their work, offer tutoring and are available to help them five days a week, 10 hours a day.” Noting that Diego Valley accepts young adults up to age 19 who have aged out of conventional schools in the Grossmont district, and up to age 24 at some locations if students are enrolled in a Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act program. She adds that the ruling will leave these young people “without a place to finish getting their education and diploma. It also revokes a student’s right to choose an individualized learning plan outside of a rigid traditional school.”

Noting that the GUHSD raised $800 million in bond funds allocated for other projects, she states, “Perhaps the $26 million event center that is being built at Grossmont High School would have been better utilized as charter school options, tutoring or expanding alternative education options” to provide parents with choices and a “win-win situation.”

The arguments for closure included the fact that the schools had low graduation rates: 28% at Diego Valley and just 20% at San Diego Workforce High.  The schools did not produce any graduates who met course requirements for either the University of California or California State University, the Union-Tribune reported.

But that’s in part because the charters have accepted students who had huge obstacles to overcome.

“The students who are served by Diego Valley East and San Diego Workforce Innovation High School have, on average, been out of school for 6-8 months, are 1.5 eyars behind in their completed credits, and enroll with a  5th-6th grade reading level,” says Ann Abajian with Learn4Life. Those students cannot graduate through GUHSD schools but the majority of Learn4Life students do graduate, she adds.

According to Learn4Life:

  • 608 students who are ineligible for enrollment in traditional school because they are 17 ½ or older, and nearly 60 of these students are 25 or fewer credits from graduation. Learn4Life’s personalized, flexible model and exclusive WIOA partnerships allowed them to serve adult students, and now they have nowhere to turn to finish high school.
  • Many are teen parents who are unable to attend a school that doesn’t offer flexible scheduling.
  • Nearly 100 Chaldean refugees who faced religious persecution and fled to El Cajon for a better life. Learn4Life employs teachers who speak their language and understand what they have been through.
  • 676 minority students. Learn4Life has always embraced students of all backgrounds. This ruling disproportionately impacts students of color.
  • 182 students receiving special education services who have excelled in Learn4Life’s personalized education model.
  • 61 homeless students that Grossmont Union HSD can’t or won’t serve.

Learn4Life’s model which incorporates trauma-informed practices is especially beneficial to students living with extreme hardship says Abajian. “Every student completes a 10-week professional skills course and a majority are enrolled in a CTE Pathway, getting specialized job training so they can enter the workforce with a high-paying career immediately after graduating.”

While its students  may not be college bound, having a high school diploma can help them get job training and life skills, in some cases becoming the first in their families to receive a high school diploma. Learn4Life says 46% of its students go on to post-secondary education.

Dina Kami, 21, was saddened by the news that Diego Valley East may close. “I came to the United States at age 19 from Iraq so I can’t go to the district school,” Kami reflects. “I work full-time to support my family, so I do not have any school options that work for me.”

Francisco Campos (photo, right) brings a young baby along to his Learn4Life location.

Learn4Life contends that its schools are operating legally and complying with conditions in Anderson USD v. Shasta, but the court disagreed.

Prior to the stay being issued, Abajian stated, “Effectively, the court and Grossmont Union HSD are putting nearly 1,000 minority, disadvantaged and at-risk students on the street with nowhere to turn.”

After the ruling, Abajian told ECM, “We are confident that the Court of appeal will correct the decision.”

Before the stay was issued, some of the charter school students applied to other schools and must now determine whether to return to their charters for a year with the long-term future still uncertain.

Ardisia Knowles posted to Diego Valley parents after learning of the stay ordered issued, “This is wonderful news, but do understand that it means we have won the battle, but not the war.”



Written By:
Ann Abajian
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