Parents say stalling on Sunnyvale school closure is leaving their kids without options

At a sometimes heated meeting on Wednesday night, students, teachers and parents pressed local education officials and representatives from a Sunnyvale charter school for answers about the school’s potential closure this summer, urging them to make a definitive decision about the school’s future and asking for more transparency about its past.

The school, Summit Denali, is one of several Summit charter schools in the Bay Area and currently serves more than 600 middle and high school students at its Sunnyvale campus. But on Jan. 11, Summit officials announced that the school would likely have to close permanently at the end of the academic year, citing financial issues.

Parents at the meeting — some of them wearing t-shirts with “Save Denali” and “We Are Denail” across the front — expressed their alarm that the Summit board has not yet cast a final vote regarding whether or not the school will permanently shut down this summer, saying they have already missed the deadlines for enrolling in other private or public schools.

The deadline for the first round of open enrollment in Santa Clara County Unified School District schools was Feb. 3, and the deadline for open enrollment in Sunnyvale School District schools was Feb. 14. The open enrollment deadline for Fremont Union High School District schools is April 3.

Students who enroll after those deadlines are still able to register to attend their neighborhood school, but may not be able to enroll at another school of their preference within their district.

Deadlines for many private schools were even earlier — for example, the application deadline for Helios School, a private school for gifted students, was Jan. 13, just two days after the Summit Denali announcement was made. 

“If it’s going to be closed, let us know now – the private school deadlines are complete, we’re on waiting lists for other charter schools. We have people calling us and asking, ‘are you going to attend our school next year?’” Harfijah Oliver, the parent of a Summit seventh grader, said. “We can’t even give them an answer because your board refuses to take action and is just drawing this out…it’s extremely disheartening. You are not here for our students.”

Summit Denali administrators have so far refused to set a date for a decision on the closure. They say the school has a $4.5 million gap in funding that it would need to fill to keep operating, and that it would also need to come up with a way to continue securing enough funding year after year. According to Summit officials, those avenues don’t currently exist.

“To be clear, we want to keep the school open,” Edward Lee, chief financial officer for Summit Public Schools, said at the Santa Clara County Board of Education meeting. “I want to make sure we communicate that clearly.”

Lee, along with Summit CEO and co-founder Diane Tavenner and Chief of Public Affairs Kate Gottfredson, also said the company only recently discovered the full extent of the school’s financial troubles, and that officials have thoroughly explored other options for students, including operating Summit Denali as an online-only school or phasing out specific grades over time in a gradual move toward the school’s closure. Those options didn’t seem viable either, they said, prompting Summit officials to move toward closing the school altogether.

But attendees at Wednesday night’s meeting were skeptical of the notion that nothing could have been done until now, saying that Summit officials had plenty of opportunities to warn the school’s stakeholders about its financial troubles before they reached a point of no return.

“I do understand the complexity and nuances and all the drivers that you’re looking at,” Oliver said. “But – and this saddens me to say – a lot of the forecasting could have been predictable, and you had so many missed opportunities to work in partnership with parents.”

“But let’s be real here, looking at your financials,” Oliver continued. “We are a sacrificial lamb, that’s what Summit Denali is, to feed your under-enrolled schools at Tahoma and Redwood City, and that’s the direction we’re going.”

Summit teachers also demanded more transparency from Summit officials, saying that the sudden announcement betrays the demands that the teacher’s union, Unite Summit, has long been asking for.

Justin Kim, an eighth grade teacher at Summit K2 Middle School in El Cerrito and the president of Unite Summit, said that teachers decided to unionize in order to push for the stability of Summit schools and make sure conditions were optimal for both teachers and students. But the union’s demands – specifically, that Summit administrators increase transparency and cooperation with the union – haven’t been met and have come to a breaking point with the announcement of Denali’s potential closure, Kim said.

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