A headline incorrectly referred to the closure of "Civicorps." While Civicorps Elementary School in North Oakland is closing, it is only one campus run by Civicorps Schools. The other programs and operations managed by the nonprofit organization will remain open.
Civicorps Elementary, a charter school in North Oakland, is slated to close in June, after more than a decade on Alcatraz Avenue.
The decision came suddenly last week, with little advance notice to staff members or parents, during a special meeting of its parent organization's governing board. Parents and employees said that until they heard about the meeting, they had no idea the charter school's board was even contemplating the possibility of shuttering the school. Just last year, Civicorps Elementary underwent the Oakland school district's rigorous renewal process, extending its charter through 2016. A 43-point gain on its composite state test score had brought it within 14 points of the goal for all California schools.
"We were all blindsided," said Jennifer Browne, of Berkeley, whose daughter attends the school.
The vote on May 8, nearly four months after the Oakland school district's enrollment window closed, has left families scrambling to find new placements for their children. The Oakland school district's enrollment office sent someone to the school last week to help, and Civicorps has contacted local charter schools about openings. About 80 percent of the school's 150 students live in Oakland, more than half come from low-income families, and roughly 80 percent are African-American.
Oakland Unified spokesman Troy Flint said the closure "was a shock to the school community and the district."
Civicorps, a nearly 30-year-old youth development nonprofit originally named the East Bay Conservation Corps, is headquartered in West Oakland and runs a recycling plant in East Oakland. It operates two very different academic programs: an elementary school that focuses on public service and the arts and an academy and job-training program for high-school dropouts between the ages of 18 and 24.
Alan Lessik, Civicorps's new executive director, said the elementary school has struggled to make ends meet because of a sharp enrollment decline in 2010, paired with ongoing cuts to state education funding. He said the deficit, projected to be about $100,000, has been backfilled with revenues from the organization's recycling program. The Civicorps governing board determined this spring that it would no longer funnel recycling money -- generated mostly by the work of the academy's interns -- into the elementary school, he said.
During a retreat in February, the board began to discuss the prospect of spinning off its elementary school, a move that would have required a change in its charter with the Oakland school district. But Lessik said he couldn't find another charter management organization willing to adopt Civicorps Elementary this year, and that a financial analysis completed in April showed that it would not be financially sustainable as an independent charter.
"It was clear that the proposal wasn't going to work," Lessik said.
Lessik said the board members were concerned about closing the school so late in the year, but worried that if they postponed the decision, some families would send their children elsewhere in the fall as a result of the uncertainty, resulting in an untenable situation.
"They came to the conclusion that it's better to just do it now," he said.
But parents and school employees say they are appalled by the lack of planning, financial management and transparency shown by the organization's leadership. They say they could have saved the school if they had been given time to do so. And, as the school's fiscal challenges have gone back years, they question the board's sudden sense of urgency.
"It's just negligence, at a minimum," said Abdul-Haqq Khalifah, a Civicorps math and science teacher who enrolled his own children at the school.
Parents and employees who attended the fateful Civicorps meeting said a well-respected board member, Yolanda Peeks, quietly submitted a letter of resignation after the vote.
Her name is no longer listed on the governing board Web page.
A week after the meeting -- which had been called less than a week earlier -- neither the agenda nor the minutes of that meeting were posted on the organization's website. An agenda for the board's monthly meeting on Wednesday scheduled 20 minutes for an update on the school closure.
By contrast, the Oakland school district's controversial decision to close five elementary schools (including Santa Fe, the closest OUSD school to Civicorps Elementary) happened in late October, after several tense public hearings that stretched on late into the night.
Families from the closed schools went through a separate school selection process; in four out of five schools, the vast majority received their first-choice placements.
Browne said her fourth-grade daughter, Taylor, is having a hard time accepting that her school is closing. Like other parents, she said, she is still hoping the board will reconsider.
"Civicorps has been a great influence in her life," she said. "Some of her core values have come from that school."