Oakland Unified School District dealt a blow to E.C. Reems Academy of Technology and Arts when it denied a five-year renewal of the school's charter in May. But it is not going down without a fight.
The school's administrators are appealing to the county this week and will go to the state if necessary to keep the doors open.
"We feel that our school qualifies," Principal Lisa Blair said. "There's a place for us in the community, and we feel that we should be open."
E.C. Reems was one of Oakland's first charter schools. The campus sits on MacArthur Boulevard at 84th Street, an area plagued with violence and poverty. Ninety-two percent of its 250 students are African-American; many are low-income and come from single-parent households.
Enrollment has dropped by more than a third in two years, pulling down the school's revenues and raising concerns at Oakland school district headquarters about the quality of education the school provides and whether students' needs are being met. While revenues decreased, ongoing expenses have not, leaving the school $267,000 in debt, mostly for costly special education programs.
To stay afloat, E.C. Reems borrowed money from the school district and from its future revenues, which school district spokesman Troy Flint likened to payday loans.
"This is a school that clearly has serious financial issues. Its ability to remain solvent and to keep the doors open are in question," Flint said, adding that the district wants to avoid another midyear closure similar to what occurred with 100 Black Men of the Bay Area Community School, which closed in January because of financial trouble.
The district also cited low test scores and compared them with nearby schools and similar demographics districtwide.
The school's performance based on the state's Academic Performance Index rose to 711 last year from 699, but it still failed to meet the adequate yearly progress criteria. According to the Oakland Unified staff report recommendation against the charter renewal, three out of four district schools within a 1-mile radius have higher test scores. Parker Elementary's is 852, the highest of the four.
"Despite the advantages a charter school has, the data unequivocally shows that E.C. Reems failed to meet its responsibility," Flint said.
However, Blair said that there are many ways to slice and dice test scores. and the district compared E.C. Reems, a K-8 school, with four elementary schools.
Nearby middle schools have lower 2013 API scores, according to data from the state Department of Education
Flint acknowledged that the comparison to elementary schools is not perfect and that middle schools tend to have lower scores.
"At least with the previous comparison, you have six overlapping grades, kindergarten to fifth grade," he said.
Blair said the growing number of students enrolling at the school who are unprepared at their grade level is lowering test scores. Many students' parents are younger and many were not successful in school, she said. "Parents who have not seen success themselves often do not reinforce education as being the way out of poverty, which creates a different set of conditions in the school," she said.
The original vision of the school, "to help" children and the community, has not changed, said Bishop Ernestine C. Reems of Center of Hope Community Church next door. She founded the school 14 years ago.
"I will not give up," she said.
The Rev. Brondon Reems helped start the school and said closing the door on the students is closing the door on their futures and the future of the neighborhood.
"I see this school as an artery. This is where you're affecting an artery in this community," he said. "The heart is vital. You want to take care of it."
Blair said the school has been prepping for the hearing before the Alameda County Board of Education on Wednesday and has a plan for paying off its debt. "Repayment is built in over the next five years with it being paid off in the next year," Blair said.
Despite the uncertainty of the school's future, some parents have already begun to enroll their students for next fall. If E.C. Reems closes, Saadiqah Raashid's children will go to a private school.
She has a first-grader and a fourth-grader plus four nieces and three nephews attending E.C. Reems. Her granddaughter, two more nieces and a nephew hope to start in August.
"Somebody needs to come in, and not just for one minute or one hour or for one day. They need to come in and spend time here to feel the dynamic of the school," Raashid said. "The numbers they are providing do not provide them what they need to really understand the school."
Raashid commuted for months from an affluent neighborhood in Suisun City so her children could attend E.C. Reems. Then her family moved to Oakland to be closer to the school's tight-knit dynamic with its small class sizes and staff members who are willing to sit with parents on a whim, she said.
"E.C. Reems is an open door for the community to be involved. So, for me, it takes me back when I was a child in Oakland public schools," Raashid said. "Our entire neighborhood was invested in raising every child. It honestly takes a village to raise these children."