Long Beach charter school faces financial, academic challenges

Executive Director Daphne Ching-Jackson hopes her struggling 15-year-old charter school gets second chance.
Executive Director Daphne Ching-Jackson hopes her struggling 15-year-old charter school gets second chance.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

In recent years, financial problems and sub-par academic performance have plagued one of the oldest charter schools in the Southland. KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports that independent public school faces a school board vote tonight that will determine its future.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Fifteen years ago, Constellation Community Middle School became the first charter school in Long Beach Unified and the 58th in the state. Constellation’s executive director, Daphne Ching-Jackson, says parents expected a lot from the school back then.

Daphne Ching-Jackson: We were promising a more quality educational program, financial resources devoted to classrooms, to students and their needs and smaller classes. So we have been able to maintain no more than 30 students per classroom.

Guzman-Lopez: The teacher-led school tried innovative approaches and used gentle discipline to improve learning for about 150 or so urban students at risk of flunking or dropping out. As with most other charter schools in California, the school district that authorized Constellation didn’t give it a building. For eight years the charter has leased a dilapidated two-story facility that used to be part of Saint Anthony Catholic high school.

During a tour a couple of weeks before first day of classes, Ching-Jackson walked past pockmarked walls and floors with missing tiles. She stopped outside a room with decades-old sinks and metal nozzles for mid-20th century Bunsen burners.

Ching-Jackson: We actually don’t use this as a science lab, we use it as the lunch room to serve food for the kids.

Guzman-Lopez: Learning and a clean facility go hand in hand, she said. That’s why several years ago Constellation’s board took out a loan to start a $3 million rehab of a Long Beach warehouse. But earlier this year, cost overruns on the new campus and the sour economy led Constellation to default on the loan and lose nearly $1 million in the process.

Ching-Jackson: The board’s goal was to save the school because with our reserve dwindling, with the state saying they were going into a fiscal crisis and didn’t have enough money to pay their bills, we saw the future and we knew what we needed to do.

Guzman-Lopez: At the same time Constellation failed to meet state and federal student performance standards. The school places near the bottom in state rankings of similar schools. Those scores and the school’s finances prompted alarm at the Long Beach Unified School District.

Long Beach Unified school board member Mary Stanton said there was talk of revoking the school’s charter. But, she added, the board also noticed and praised the level of parent involvement at Constellation.

Mary Stanton: There is a need for this type of school. And I would personally like to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Guzman-Lopez: Long Beach’s superintendent has proposed renewing the school’s charter for five years – provided that it improves the scores of English learners and focuses instruction on state learning standards. That plan is up for a vote today. The Long Beach district would revoke the charter within a year if Constellation doesn’t get its financial house in order.

Executive director Daphne Ching-Jackson said she and the school staff are up to the task, even as they need to re-evaluate the way they proceed.

Ching-Jackson: What I have learned in the last 10 years is, this is a business and I’m the CEO, so therefore I need to make sure that this business is well run and it takes all of us, not just me.

Guzman-Lopez: Even though Constellation’s likely to get a second chance, other charter schools in similar situations may not. Officials with the California Charter Schools Association say they’re pushing for the state board of education to revoke the charters of the lowest-performing campuses. That, they say, would compel charter schools to fulfill their promise of a better education than traditional public schools.