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Education Desk Mar. 18, 2015

Middle College GPA Screw–Up Has Lasting Consequences for Students

While Santa Clara Unified continues to pursue its fixation on putting drug dogs on school campuses – the March 5 meeting saw a third push for Wonder Woofs' program of friendly drug–sniffing canines – some students are losing college and scholarship opportunities because SCUSD isn't correctly reporting their grade point averages (GPAs).The students are part of the Mission Middle College program letting high schoolers attend community college instead of conventional high school.

At the March 5 school board meeting, about 10 Middle College students came to the board to protest the continuing failure of the district to correct this error – it came up about a year ago. SCUSD Mission College program advisors are powerless to correct the weighting.

The crux of the problem is that the extra grade point that the school's catalog says is given for AP classes – for example, an A is 5 points instead of 4 – isn't reflected in Middle College transcripts. As a result, students have lost scholarships and been denied admission to some colleges. One student lost a federal grant worth $40,000 over four years because his GPA was incorrectly reported and under the cutoff.

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“I don't know what my true GPA is,” said senior Marisa Bene. “I want students across the district to be aware of what's happening. If it happened to me it could happen to you.”

Not only are GPAs wrong, it appears that there is a “leak” in SCUSD's student data management that allowed at least one student's transcript to appear on a public webpage. As of this writing, the Mission Middle College website is down for maintenance.

Part of the problem is that Middle College grades take a tortuous route through the district's computer systems, and transcripts are maintained by the high schools the students would otherwise attend.

District officials scheduled a meeting for the following Monday. “I absolutely love the program at Middle College, the kids who are in the program, who are amazing, and the passion of the teachers who work them each day to give them every chance for success,” said Superintendent Stan Rose. “Staff will be reviewing all aspects of their concerns and making the most thoughtful recommendations concerning how best to move forward, and as quickly as possible.”

There's one subject that these students indisputably deserve an A+ in: self–advocacy, a skill the Middle College program aims to develop.

County Says No to New Magnolia Charter Plan

They say “third time is a charm.” But at last week's Santa Clara County Board of Education meetingno charmwas able to overcome the flaws in Magnolia Science Academy's proposal for reconstituting itself as a new charter school, Silicon Valley STEM Academy (SVSA) – despite the crowd of about 500 filling the County boardroom and cafeteria to overflowing, protesting what they saw as Santa Clara Unified's unwarranted shutdown of their school.

The many speakers arguing that Magnolia shouldn't be closed only confused the issue.The hearing's purpose was considering the proposal for the new charter, not continuing Magnolia's;which in any case isn't being closed. Its lease with SCUSD for the Central Park school is expiring, and the County Board has no role in district contracts. When it was signed, Magnolia was told it was likely the district wouldn't renew it because, as turns out to be the case, the school is needed to relieve over–crowding at other SCUSD schools, and the district plans to reopen it for the 2016–2017 school year.

The County Board unanimously denied SVSA'spetition for the same reasons that SCUSD did when Magnolia/SVSA presented the identical proposal in January: that “The petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition.”

The reasons include inadequate financial plans, identification of start–up funds,and description of the school's K–5 program(Magnolia is grades 6–12). Further, because in its three presentations Magnoliamade such a point of itshigh–achieving students, Board members expressed skepticism that SVSA could meet legal requirements to serve students at all ability levels.

Board President LeonBeauchmanalso said that the fact that none of the students who spoke had been at Magnolia more than two years gave him “an uncomfortable feeling about the viability of the school in its current configuration.

“It's difficult for us to separate Magnolia from the STEM Academy,” he said. “A lot of the petition cites Magnolia as a reason to approve [SVSA]. I would remind folks that the charter law gives preference to schools targeting underperforming students. What that means is you have a higher bar.”

Because Magnolia is a county charter school, the district isn't obliged to provide facilities unless more than half its students are SCUSD residents. The district gets $500,000 in lease payments, but must give Magnolia $1.2 million for the Santa Clara students that attend.

Shortly after the school's request to extend the lease was refused last June,Magnolia administration and parents presented aproposal for a district charter, SVSA. When this SCUSD turned it down, Magnolia took its petition to the County Board.

In 2008, Magnolia wanted a county charter “to facilitate the provision of instruction in a multi–site setting … As schools of choice, Magnolia Foundation schools enroll students from wide residence areas … [and] from many different school districts, private schools and home–schooling families.” SVSA's proposal is to enroll mainly SCUSD students.

“From the get–go you came to us and said Magnolia was going to be county–wide and acted like a [county] destination charter,” said Board Member Anna Song. That made it difficult to reconcile the new positioning as a district school. “Now today we're being asked to consider a petition for a new school, the STEM Academy.

“We're coming back again and again to Magnolia,” she continued, referring to the fact that Magnolia has needed emergency help more than once. “They said they didn't need Prop 31 [district facilities], they had sites lined up. When this contract was signed it was clear there was no opportunity to extend. It would have been much better to come to us a year ago as Magnolia and ask us for help. [Now] you comein the 11th hour. I would like to see this succeed. But to do that, you have to be more transparent.”

Magnolia's Chief Growth Officer, Frank Gonzalez, who's been on the job two months, said Magnolia has asked for classrooms in Milpitas, Sunnyvale, and had contacted private schools for space. “I'm up here two, three days a week. [One problem is] the high cost of real estate here. I have been meeting with Stan Rose [SCUSD Superintendent] to submit a [request for a lease] extension. All Magnolia is asking is a year's extension.”

One reason for the County Board's concern – and one reason why Magnolia principal Yilmaz Ak may be seeking to disconnect from the Magnolia Public Schools (MPS) organization – is the closure of two Magnolia schools last June by Los Angeles Unified after an audit uncovered financial mismanagement.

The audit found thatMPSwas insolvent; with some schools operating at a deficit and profitable schools lending money to the parent organization. In addition, auditors found that MPS paid $200,000 for non–employees' immigration fees and lawyers. MPS also paid a company with interlocked board membership, Accord Institute, a third of its budget for services overlapping its own operations. MPS disputes these claimsand recently hired a new CEO.

As a result of the LAUSD audit, the California State Auditor launched a statewide audit of the Magnolia Education and Research Foundation (MERF) and Magnolia Science Academies, expected to be complete in May.

Magnolia Santa Clara got its start in 2008 under the auspices of MERF as part of a chain of more than 100 U.S. charter schools, widely believed to have ties to a wealthy Turkish theologian and media mogul, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains.

Gulen is founder of a modernist, largely philosophical variant of Islam, sometimes called Hizmet (“service”); emphasizing education and tolerance in a civil society. He's a political enemy of Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who tried unsuccessfully to extradite Gulen.

Gulen–linked schools have predominantly Turkish staffs and offer Turkish language classes and cultural events. The schools are sometimes accused of being training grounds for a Gulen fifth column –– much as Catholic schools a century ago were believed by some to be training grounds for a Vatican fifth column.

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