The Wall Street Journal Visits Scholarship Prep
Opening Day at a New Charter School
By ALLYSIA FINLEY
Aug. 30, 2016 7:03 p.m.
Santa Ana, Calif.
It’s the first day of school at Scholarship Prep Academy, a K-8 charter-school startup in a barrio in Orange County, Calif. The new school is housed in a church, where classrooms are named after colleges such as Harvard and Ohio State.
Like many charters, Scholarship Prep serves an underprivileged community. About 90% of its 300-some students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Most parents walk their kids to school because they don’t own cars, and the Orange County Board of Education doesn’t fund bus transportation. This is just one of the obstacles that co-founder Gloria Romero faced when launching the school with Jason Watts.
Getting to opening day hasn’t been easy. A long list of challenges had to be met before the school could open—not least navigating the bureaucratic barriers set up by the teachers unions and their friends in government to block the charter-school competition.
Ms. Romero, a Democrat and a former majority leader of the state senate, has spent two decades championing school reform and knows her way around the education bureaucracy. Since many charters are initially rejected by their local school districts, she short-circuited the approval process by directly petitioning the county Board of Education, which typically hears appeals. Even so, the board’s staff tried unsuccessfully to impose cumbersome conditions on the charter, such as requiring that expenditures over $10,000 had to be approved by the board.
Scholarship Prep was fortunate to receive a $500,000 grant from the state. Since most of the money won’t arrive until December, Ms. Romero and Mr. Watts turned to a revolving-loan fund to pay off charges for equipment and supplies. When interest rates on the loans soared, a private booster lent them $300,000 at a more bearable 5%.
Most new charters have to raise private funds, a tough job in Orange County because of its affluent image, Ms. Romero says. Philanthropists don’t realize that Orange County contains communities with greater educational needs and fewer options than Los Angeles, she says. This year only 7% of students at Willard Intermediate—located a few blocks away—met or exceeded California’s math standards. One in five students at nearby Wilson Elementary passed the state’s reading test.
Recruiting students wasn’t easy either. Parents often didn’t understand how charters worked, Ms. Romero says, even though they felt “in their gut” that charters offered kids a chance that traditional public schools denied them. She points to traces of union subterfuge: “Parents called saying that they were being told that the teachers weren’t certified and that the school was free only for the first year.”
A new study from the California Charter School Association finds that in 2013 the University of California accepted 21% of low-income applicants who attended charters, twice the percentage of students accepted from traditional public schools serving similar populations. For the children of Scholarship Prep, that’s an encouraging statistic on which to begin the school year.