Embattled online charter school opens Yolo branch through Winters JUSD

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Photo by Crystal Apilado/Winters Express

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The Southern-California-based charter school organization that gained access to potential enrollees in seven counties through Winters Joint Unified School District’s April authorization has faced public controversy during a time when state lawmakers are revisiting charter school policy.

Petition denials this past year have claimed Compass Charter Schools, a non-profit public-benefit corporation that uses an online-based platform to offer alternative educational routes, failed to meet eligibility requirements per California state law.

In January, Orange Center School District in Fresno County declined to renew a five-year charter with Compass, resulting in a failed petition process with the county. The Monterey County Office of Education refused a petition to merge with failing hands-on charter school Millennium in April and the Berkeley Unified School District denied a petition to merge with its now-defunct R.E.A.L.M. charter school.

The petition denials said Compass failed to meet several key components, including a lack of demonstrable ability to meet state educational standards, providing for special education and English language learners, as well as questions about Compass’s legal and financial ethics.

Independent news outlet Berkeleyside, which brought much of these controversies to light after Winters JUSD approved the charter petition for Compass, reported that BUSD trustees questioned Compass’s ability and motivation to absorb millions of dollars in debt to merge with failing charters, use of publicly scrutinized curriculum providers like K12, Inc. and StrongMind, and ties to Sean McManus, who was recently indicted for defrauding the state of $81 million through false enrollment numbers at his most recent company A3.

All of this comes at a time when state laws are threatening to impose new regulations as well as a moratorium on online-based charters like Compass.

In an interview with The Winters Express, Compass CEO JJ Lewis maintained that he and his organization are dedicated to providing quality education and school choice, and distanced Compass from “bad actors.”

“We’re doing everything a public school would be doing. And I get it—this is a volatile time for public education in California in general,” Lewis said. “We actually are scholar-centered and we actually do put our scholars first, and I’m really proud to be part of a team that does that.”

“The work of a few bad actors is wrong, and it does a disservice to those of use who are operating as we’re supposed to,” Lewis said.

In terms of curriculum, Lewis said language in the petition is open to subjective interpretation and doesn’t necessarily reflect his organization’s program. While the Fresno County Office of Education held up Orange Center School District’s denial to reauthorize Compass over poor test scores, Lewis said they looked only at a dip that occurred in the previous year and failed to account for the fact that some students may opt for independent study programs because they are behind their counterparts in traditional schools.

“We believe we have a pretty robust curriculum and we’re doing some unique instructional practices within the virtual space. A lot of online programs are just that—they’re having the kids do their work independently in the online platform,” Lewis said.

Compass Charter Schools approached WJUSD about authorizing a charter after Lewis met Superintendent Dr. Todd Cutler at a conference last summer, according to Cutler.

“The one thing I did like is that it was an independent study program. As a small district, we struggle to provide an independent study program,” Culter said.

When Lewis formally approached Winters JUSD about a charter petition this January, Winters JUSD Chief Business Officer Karen Peters and Technology Coordinator Nicole Reyherme, along with additional staff, vetted Compass and determined a partnership would benefit Winters students. The Board of Trustees voted unanimously to approve the petition April 18.

In addition to enrolling students in Compass programs at no fee, Winters JUSD will also receive an oversight fee equal to one-percent of all state funds, based on enrollees. This could be a substantial amount, considering Winters JUSD’s authorization gives Compass access to potential enrollees in Yolo County and its six surrounding counties.

In terms of the controversy, Cutler said that nothing about Compass set off any alarms until media coverage about denials in other counties was released after authorization. Cutler said Winters JUSD would have to be sure to function in its oversight capacity and insure against accounting or programming discrepancies, but so far, he’d found no reason to distrust Lewis or Compass. If they aren’t legitimate, Winters JUSD can deny their reauthorization in five years.

“Any charter school—any—can approach a district about authorization. You really have to have something substantial to deny for,” Cutler said. “Let’s just say we denied—their next step would be to go to the county and then they would have the opportunity to go to the state. In my experience, one of those three are going to approve it. We didn’t go search them out.”

About 40 students are currently enrolled in Compass Charter School of Yolo, which operates without any local brick-and-mortar campus, solely online.

The Winters JUSD Board of Trustees will vote on a final Memorandum of Understanding between Compass and the District at their meeting July 18.


This article has been updated to clarify that Berkeleyside is an independent news outlet. ]]>

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