Charter school approval comes with warning: Be inclusive (or else)

Pinecrest Academy
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at a visit to Pinecrest Academy Cadence in December (U.S. Department of Education, CC BY 2.0)

A legislative directive aimed at increasing diversity within Nevada’s expanding charter school population now has one of its first guinea pigs.

The Nevada State Public Charter School Authority board on Tuesday conditionally approved the creation of Pinecrest of Northern Nevada with the explicit expectation that its student body immediately reflect the socioeconomic diversity of Washoe County as a whole.

In other words: It needs to enroll students from low-income families.

The approval of the first charter school is one of the first following the passage of Assembly Bill 462 earlier this year. That bill required the charter school authority to craft an Academic and Demographic Needs Assessment, which details student demographic information and academic needs across Nevada, especially among students most at risk of dropping out. The charter school authority and its board are required to consider the assessment during their approval process and the expectation is that proposed schools should be addressing at least one of three target areas: English language learners (ELL), qualified for free or reduced-price lunch (FRL) or an individualized education program (IEP).

Data shows state-sponsored charter schools, especially those rated highest in state rankings, have disproportionately low enrollment of students within these categories.

Pinecrest of Northern Nevada, which began the application process prior to the passage of AB 462, originally projected that only 4 percent of the school’s students would qualify for free or reduced lunch. That number was reached by looking at current demographics of students located within a two-mile radius of their proposed school site. 

They have now adjusted that projection to 47 percent — the percentage of students within Washoe County School District who qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“We were placed in the unfortunate position of our target moving halfway through,” said Megan Salcido, a member on the committee to form the school. “We believe with conditions we can meet and surpass (the new goals).”

One condition for approval is that the school implements a weighted lottery that favors low-income students. The school must also put in a “comprehensive marketing effort” to recruit those students. Another condition is the school must from day one participate in the National School Lunch Program, which provides low-cost or free lunches to qualified children.

Salcido noted that the school is already deep into talks with the Boys & Girls Club of Truckee Meadows regarding before- and after-school care. Though the full details of of the partnership aren’t known, the executive director of the organization sits on the school’s board. The Boys & Girls Club, which already serves the area the school is planned to be located in, is hoping to build its own facility on the school’s property.

Pinecrest of Northern Nevada plans to build in Spanish Springs, an affluent suburb in the northeastern Reno-Sparks area. A free or reduced lunch population of 47 percent would be disproportionately high compared to existing public schools within the immediate area. However, the Pinecrest committee said they planned to recruit from beyond the immediate area. Specifically, they are working on partnering with two nearby tribal communities — the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe — with high numbers of low-income students and chronic absenteeism. They also noted that a new industrial park in the area is bringing in adult workers from less affluent areas who could be eager to enroll their children nearby.

Salcido identified transportation as one of the primary barriers to enrollment and said the board is working on a number of solutions — from partnering with the local public transportation provider, to creating “carpool options” by connecting families in neighborhoods.

“We have a strong commitment to recruiting the FRL students, but there is also a huge desire from those students,” added Salcido. “It’s a two-way street.”

Pinecrest stated it has “interest to enroll” forms from more than 450 students residing in 24 separate zip codes. Committee members pointed to Doral Academy of Northern Nevada, which pulls students from 22 separate zip codes.

Five of the six voting charter school board members voted to approve Pinecrest of Northern Nevada. Board member Mallory Cyr cast the lone nay vote, but she provided no explanation during the public meeting. One other board member, Tonia Holmes-Sutton, recused herself from the discussion and vote due to a conflict.

The charter school board’s approval went against the recommendation of the charter school authority’s review committee, which recommended denial of the Pinecrest application based off the needs assessment and their interview with the proposed school’s officials.

Board member Sheila Moulton praised the committee for doing their job and vetting the school.

“They did their job,” she said. “It’s our job to make the ultimate hard decision. We make take guff.”

The board’s approval did come with a stern warning from even the most supportive board members.

“I’ll be blunt,” said chair Melissa Mackedon. “You’re taking on a huge onus (but) I think this is a group that can do it.”

Mackedon went on to say that failure to achieve the socioeconomic diversity targets would result in “serious consequences” — and not just for Pinecrest and Academica, the national charter management company the chain of schools contracts with.

“If this is to be approved and you don’t meet those metrics, you’re screwing it up for everyone behind you,” she said. “Not just Academica. Every school. ‘Remember when we went out on a whim and they didn’t meet those metrics?’ We will be very gun shy.”

Pinecrest currently operates five schools in Southern Nevada. All are in or near Henderson. Four are classified as high performing by the state’s star rating system. The fifth opened during the current academic year and does not yet have a rating. Like many other charter schools, Pinecrest has been criticized for having student bodies that do not reflect the community as a whole, though it has improved its numbers over time.

Ryan Reeves, chief operating officer of Academica Nevada, told the charter school board there is “no better model than Pinecrest” to take on the directive of the state to prioritize educationally disadvantaged students through charter schools.

“Does it scare me? Yes, a little, because it’s a new environment. But this is where we have to go.”

Mackedon agreed.

“I’d rather have the experiment with a proven school.”

On their end, members of the committee to form the school said they understood the equity directive and were up for the challenge.

“We as a board are beyond committed,” promised Angela Orr, the principal of Doral Academy of Northern Nevada and a member on the committee to form the new Pinecrest school. “We are committed to the demographic. Our school will be diverse from day one.”

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.