Burbank school board denies renewing charter school’s petition, citing ‘persistently low’ graduation rates

The Burbank Unified school board voted last week to not renew a petition submitted by the charter school Options for Youth to continue operating in Burbank, following a recommendation made by Burbank Supt. Matt Hill, and a 57-page staff report presenting data showing “persistently low” graduation rates at the school and overall declining scores on the state’s standardized exam.

The board’s unanimous vote came after board members heard dozens of parents and students share emotional stories about how Options for Youth, which has been in Burbank for 20 years, was their last resort and how it impacted their lives for the better.

Students who struggle to find success at traditional high schools can transfer to Options for Youth in order to hopefully improve their academic performance and grades.

“Because of this school, I go to Glendale Community College with a 3.0 [grade-point average] and a desire one day to have a bachelor’s [degree], majoring in child development,” said Laura Russell, a former Options for Youth student. “Because of this school, I graduated high school, and I love learning.”

Burbank school officials pointed to faults in the school’s academic and financial areas as reasons to deny its renewal.

In a data comparison, Burbank school officials compared Burbank Unified’s 93% graduation rate for the 2014-15 school year with Options for Youth’s 24% graduation rate for the same academic year.

“The question was asked of me, ‘Can I look myself in the mirror with this decision?’ And I’ll be honest, it wasn’t easy,” Hill said. “I stay up at night thinking about the students … that don’t make it, and I can’t, in good conscience, allow the charter to continue with that. In good conscience, even though I know it’s a difficult decision, I cannot recommend approval of this charter.”

Examining subgroups, Burbank Unified officials said the graduation rate among Latino students at Options for Youth has fallen from 22% in 2012 to 19% last year.

Graduation rates also declined among English learners at the charter school, according to the report. In 2016, about 9% of English learners graduated, a drop from 14% in 2012 — the most recent year the charter was renewed.

Options for Youth spokeswoman Kimberly Brown said the school’s students can return to their previous school to graduate once they get back on track at the charter. When they do, however, they’re often classified as “dropouts,” she said.

“The metric that deems [Options for Youth] to have ‘persistently low’ graduation rates [is] misleading and ultimately inaccurate,” Brown said.

Options for Youth operates two locations in Burbank, serving about 580 students.

The charter is now “exploring all options, including a county appeal, which will determine if and when the two school sites will close,” Brown said. “Our focus has always been the students, and we will work with those enrolled at the Burbank school sites to help them with transition plans, if that becomes necessary.”

Many parents and students told Burbank school officials that Options for Youth put students back on track to earning a high school degree after struggling with medical diagnoses, experiencing bullying that led them to leave public school or nearly losing all hope.

“I don’t think I’d have a high school graduate right now, if it weren’t for this program.” said parent Christine Lopez of her daughter, who attended the charter.

Burbank school officials, however, determined the charter operates an “unsound” educational program.

While 3% of Options for Youth juniors met or exceeded the math standard on the state’s standardized exam in 2016, 38% of Burbank Unified juniors met or exceeded that standard, according to Burbank Unified, which drew several academic comparisons using state data.

Bill Tynan, principal of Options for Youth, said the board’s denial would dislocate hundreds of students.

“What I’m afraid we’ll miss tonight is an opportunity — if you deny our renewal — a chance to come to the table with you and the district to … discuss in detail your concerns and questions, allow us to respond and make corrections where we can, and essentially begin a new kind of partnership or closer alignment between your expectations and our performance as the goal,” Tynan said.

Burbank school officials also pointed to the charter’s “unsound fiscal practices and policies,” but Brown said that finding is “unsupported,” adding that the charter’s financial statements “fully and completely disclose our finances.”

The district stated that the charter school’s 2016-17 budget “indicates a new debt of $2.2 million that does not appear in the financial statements, cash flow, budget assumptions or on a repayment schedule,” according to the report, which also states: “Subsequent reports show this debt as $2.9 million.”

Burbank school board members did not discount the stories they heard from parents and students.

“Some of them were extreme stories,” said Burbank school board member Charlene Tabet. “It’s hard to imagine, how you even got to this point where you got up here, and you could speak and tell us about your journey.”

Despite the stories, the board hinged their vote on the district’s responsibility to oversee Options for Youth and its academic goals.

“We have a duty and responsibility to take in all aspects of consideration when we have to review the charter,” said school board member Steve Frintner.

kelly.corrigan@latimes.com

Twitter: @kellymcorrigan

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