Manzanita Middle School to remain open after winning appeal

WCCUSD to hold meeting on fate of Manzanita Middle School Charter
Manzanita Charter School is located at St. Luke's Methodist Church 461 33rd St. (Photo credit: Mike Kinney)

By Mike Kinney

Manzanita Middle School in Richmond will remain open after the Contra Costa County Board of Education (CCCBOE) voted June 17 to renew its charter for a five-year term starting July 1.

The 4-1 vote by the CCCBOE reversed an earlier decision by the board of the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) to deny renewing the school’s charter petition.

Manzanita is the district’s first charter school launched 20 years ago by a group of parents and educators interested in a small school setting. The school serves about 125 students, a majority of whom are Latino or Hispanic from socio-economically disadvantaged families. It operates from space leased at St. Luke’s Methodist Church at 461 33rd St. 

Manzanita’s successful appeal came as a relief to its staff and families. One teacher told the Standard the ordeal had put students through “seven weeks of added trauma” amid an already disruptive pandemic.

“We believe that it is absolutely critical that they have a safe place to return to when we open up,” Manzanita Principal Chantel Caldwell told the CCCOE Board.

The WCCUSD Board of Education denied renewing Manzanita’s charter by a 4-1 vote despite a recommendation by the district’s staff to approve it. Trustees Mister Phillips, Tom Panas, Stephanie Hernandez-Jarvis, and Valerie Cuevas voted against renewal, while Consuelo Lara, the only board member to have reportedly visited the school as part of the review, voted to keep the school open.

Board members voting to close Manzanita argued the school isn’t performing academically well enough to justify a renewal, citing scores in English language arts and math that rank behind four of six non-charter middle schools in the district. The school’s scores performed better than DeJean and Helms, two nearby non-charter public middle schools.

An analysis by WCCUSD staff found Manzanita’s scores fall “within the range” of district schools. The CCCOE staff also recommended approval of Manzanita’s charter, with Deputy Superintendent Bill Clark stating the school has met academic performance requirements.

Data additionally shows improvement in scores as students advance from sixth through eighth grades.

“My current group of sixth graders, over 50 percent of them didn’t even qualify to be at third grade level for math,” Caldwell has said amid the debate. “We have to start from where they are.”

The lone vote on the CCCOE Board against renewal was from Dr. Fatima Alleyne, who noted that, unlike other charter petitions, her board received no emails or letter opposing Manzanita.

“This was a first for me, as for all petitions thus far, at least one letter or email of opposition was received by the board,” Alleyne said.

While Alleyne supports Manzanita’s small school structure and parent-run board, she said she voted against renewal due to both its academic performance as well as evidence she believes shows the school doesn’t adequately support students with disabilities and discriminates against them in its admissions process. Now that Manzanita’s charter has been approved, Alleyne said she’s looking forward to working with the school to “ensure they serve all students, including those who are members of one of our most vulnerable populations.”

As Manzanita’s strengths, Caldwell’s leadership, as well as the school’s governing board comprised entirely of parents, were cited in the WCCUSD staff report. In her presentation to the district, Caldwell described the advantages of a small school environment for students needing a “restart.” During her tour of the school, WCCUSD Trustee Lara said she learned a number of students entered the school with multiple disciplinary infractions but have since found a safe harbor at Manzanita.

Another supporter of Manzanita is Rev. ‘Ofa Ha’unga, pastor of the St. Luke’s UMC.

“We have developed and established good rapport and a good relationship with the principal and the staff as well as the students,” the reverend said. “We stand together in support of the education of our children in the neighborhood.”