First Person: A Visit to Capitol Collegiate School Visit

September 18, 2011

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By Laura Kerr, CCSA's Regional Director for Northeastern California

I had the opportunity to visit Capitol Collegiate Academy on the fourth day of their inaugural school year. Visiting a new charter school reminds me of the optimism at the heart of this movement - and illustrates the tremendous barriers that exist to growing new schools.

Capitol Collegiate is located in a rough area of south Sacramento. Their goal is to deliver a rigorous college preparatory program to inner city students in grades K-8. The school will serve over 500 students when full, with the majority coming from socio-economically disadvantaged households.

I arrived to find the founding principal, Penny Schwinn, pacing outside the school gate of her district-owned facility. The bus was late, and time was ticking down on a busy school day. Penny had worked with the Association to secure a two-year facilities use agreement through the Proposition 39 process. It was a co-location with a traditional public school, about 4 miles from the neighborhood she was seeking to serve in her charter petition. While not ideal, the facility was more affordable than other options, taking pressure off her tight budget.

When the bus arrived a few minutes later, Ms. Schwinn was thrilled to shake the hands of each uniformed Kindergartener as they got off and walked quickly to class. Later she told me that 98% of the 60 students in her first class qualified for Free/Reduced Price Lunch. Thirty percent of the kids were English language Learners; 30% of the students had been identified for Special Education; and five of the students were homeless. These were exactly the students Penny had hoped to serve.

I got to know Penny by working with her through her approval and start-up process. Penny dreamed of opening a high quality inner city school when she was a fellow with Building Excellent Schools. Her mother had been a teacher in an underserved community in north Sacramento, and Penny had worked as a teacher in extremely challenged schools in Baltimore. Her goal was to return to her home town and start a charter school in an under-served community. Her vision was to provide strong standards and high expectations for all students.

My goal as a regional advocate is to remove barriers that stand in the way of people like Penny. As we stood outside a bustling classroom, I asked Penny to share some of her biggest challenges. She said that she had wrestled with facilities and Special Education services from her district, but the biggest barrier was the funding inequality.

Her colleagues starting charter schools on the east coast were receiving closer to $10,000 per student, compared to the less than $5,000 she was receiving. But even more difficult to swallow, said Penny, was the elimination of Class Size Reduction funding for new charter schools in California. It was a $60,000.00 difference for her small school. She would have to forego afterschool programming and additional staffing to make up for the difference.

As I said good bye to Penny and the rest of the Capitol Collegiate Academy team, I felt hopeful and determined. I'm lifted by the tremendous good that Penny is doing in my community. And I am resolved to address funding inequities that are barriers to starting and scaling high quality charter schools. Please join me in the fight to level the playing field for charter schools in California.

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