Two charter schools in Oakland are among more than four dozen statewide to receive a new seal of approval from the California Charter School Association.

Lionel Wilson College Prep Academy and Oakland Unity High School were among 56 charter schools statewide to earn the certification, which is new this year.

Also honored was Manzanita Middle School in Richmond.

"We're delighted," said teacher Linda Delgado-Pelton, Manzanita's co-founder. "We were very happy to find a lot of strengths and identify what challenges we have."

The Charter School Association's certification represents the first attempt in the nation to hold charter schools to high standards.

Certification also helps parents navigate the plethora of charter schools popping up everywhere since legislators passed them into law in 1992, said Caprice Young, charter association CEO and president.

As of June 30, California had 618 charter schools with 220,000 students, she said, and this fall 98 new charter schools are scheduled to open.

"We wanted charter schools to be able to show what a great job they were doing, and to be able to distinguish the really good schools from schools that might not be a good choice for parents," Young said.

The question remains whether the certification process — voluntary and partly based on self-evaluation — will make a difference in the quality of charter schools statewide or improve the accountability, which a 2004 State Auditor report called "weak."

To earn a certificate, schools must apply for consideration. Leaders from other charter schools, in addition to administrators from public schools, visit the campus to evaluate academics, governance and fiscal integrity over previous years. The association revokes membership of schools that fail to achieve certification within three years. ... However, schools can continue to operate without being members.

"Basically, it's sort of like a union saying we want our members, our carpenters, to be well skilled so that carpenter wages remain high," said Brian Edwards, senior policy analyst for EdSource, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group based in Mountain View. "Obviously the association is not a neutral party that's going to sniff out problem areas."

While many charter schools like Eagle Peak Montessori School in Walnut Creek have flourished, others have faltered.

In 2002, the Towers Preparatory Charter School in Richmond opened and closed after a few weeks in operation. Even charter schools with high achievement — such as the American Indian Charter Academy in Oakland, or the Livermore Valley Charter School — can suffer major setbacks. Parents at both schools ousted leadership this past year.

As a reform idea in its adolescence, charter schools still struggle with the reputation of inferiority. A June EdSource study shows that while California's charter middle schools and high schools are outperforming other schools overall, charter elementary schools tend to do worse.

However, Young defended the awards. She says that certification is just one way to help highlight the state's best charter schools, not weed out the bad apples.

"Charter schools have to get reviewed by their school district every five years. That process pulls out the worst of the worst," Young said. "This is more focused on highlighting really good charter schools. It's not about punishing bad schools."

The debate over certification matters less at Manzanita, said Delgado-Pelton. The school chooses to measure its success by its waiting list and test scores, often the highest in the West Contra Costa school district.

"We've always been on strong footing over here," she said.

In the end, she answers to the parents, who along with her and operations manager Tara Denison sit on the school's board. Often, their opinion matters more than any piece of paper.

"In a very real way, our constituents are our bosses," Delgado said.

Contact Shirley Dang at 925-977-8418 or sdang@bayareanewsgroup.com.