November 17, 2011: More than 150 charter schools across the state submitted requests for facilities to their districts under Proposition 39 last year and many did so again this year by the Nov. 1 deadline. They won't receive final offers of space until April, but Families That Can (FTC) has already started working with several schools to harness one of their most powerful resources - their parents.
Securing adequate, affordable facilities is one of the top challenges that many charter schools face. Although they are entitled to facilities that are "reasonably equivalent" to those of district schools under Prop. 39, many districts are not fully compliant. Some schools don't have enough space to grow, others have inadequate classrooms, offices and common spaces, and some schools have classrooms on multiple sites. These issues and year-to-year uncertainty about the school's location cause a hardship that parents experience first-hand.
"A lot of school leaders have recognized that getting a good facilities offer from the school district won't happen just because they have a strong Prop. 39 application or submit a lot of technical information. It's the parent voice that makes the difference in swaying school board members," said Corri Ravare, executive director, Families That Can.
Families That Can is the California Charter Schools Association's grassroots organizing effort. Their mission is to educate, empower and mobilize parents to be advocates for their schools and they work in partnership with charters to engage their parents on issues that affect their school, from facilities to legislation.
This year, Families That Can is working with a small group of charter schools that have had significant challenges securing adequate facilities from their districts. FTC starts by connecting with the school leader, getting a full idea of the issues the school is facing, then holding a workshop for parents giving an overview of Prop. 39.
"The first step is simply letting parents know their rights," said Ravare. "Their children are public school students and deserve to have a safe and adequate space to learn."
Understandably, some school leaders have been hesitant to fully engage their parents around facilities challenges, sometimes not wanting parents to know their current facility is only guaranteed for a year or that the school might have to move.
However, the Families That Can team has seen that parents are usually not only willing, but eager, to step up and help.
"Their attitude is: 'I will do anything for my school,'" said Ainye Long, director, Parent and Community Engagement, FTC.
She has been working with parents at St. Hope Public Schools in Sacramento since the spring, when their Facilities Use Agreement was before the Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Education. Their high school has been located in the former building of Sacramento High since they opened in 2003, but don't have a long-term agreement with the district. Two years ago, the school was in limbo until late summer about whether they'd be able to stay in the space. Last year, they got a guarantee sooner, but still only for a year, so parents are continuing to push to be able to stay in the space and have a long-term agreement.
"We prepare parents to speak at school board meetings, but also to talk to their friends and family members and leaders in the community to let people know what is going on. When we get the word out, since the community is often very supportive," said Long.
Some of the other challenges that schools face include being offered classrooms at multiple sites or not being offered any space at all and having to rent private facilities using operating funds.
Families That Can works with parents to help them share their stories and how these facilities challenges impact students with board members and other community decision-makers.
"Parents see how they can make a difference," said Fiorella del Carpio, director, Parent and Community Engagement, FTC. "Often, school board members need to be educated about the situation and how Prop. 39 works. When parents share why they chose a charter school and what makes their school special, it really resonates."