Charter school may be coming to Temple Beth-El [San Antonio Express-News]
(San Antonio Express-News (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sept. 27--The city's largest Jewish congregation is considering leasing its campus to a charter school with plans to open next year.
Temple Beth-El is reviewing a proposal for a five-year lease with Great Hearts Academies, a Phoenix-based charter operator that obtained state clearance last year to set up in Texas and is looking for its first location in San Antonio.
Temple board president Michael Swanson said congregational leaders are still soliciting member input but said the idea is viable -- it would create new income from facilities without requiring much alteration to accommodate a school.
The question before the congregation is outside the scope of the ongoing debate about the place of charter schools in public education, he said.
"We're not taking a stand on whether we're for or against charter schools," Swanson said. "It's strictly that we've been approached to be a landlord. We have some underutilized space that has potential to generate some revenue, and a charter school may be a good fit for us."
Charter schools receive funding from the state but are free of many state educational requirements. Their unconventional approaches can be more effective than traditional public schools, especially in historically low-income, academically struggling communities, advocates say.
Opponents say they can undercut traditional public schools while avoiding financial transparency and question whether they can maintain religious neutrality when contracting with faith groups.
Great Hearts says its schools offer college preparatory academics rooted in a classical, liberal arts curriculum. It reports high graduation rates and standardized test performance at its 16 schools in Arizona, which have more than 7,400 students.
Temple and Great Heart leaders declined to reveal the financial details of the proposed rental agreement, which is slated for a temple board vote on Oct. 1.
If approved, it would become the second charter school renting space at a local Jewish organization. A Hebrew-language charter school opened last month at the Campus of the San Antonio Jewish Community.
In a failed bid to expand into Nashville, Great Hearts drew criticism that it caters to wealthy Anglo families, a charge denied by the charter system's executives, who say they operate schools in Arizona with racial minorities making up majority enrollment.
It does not provide transportation and has been criticized for asking parents for donations as high as $1,500 per student in Arizona, according to media reports. The Temple Beth El location at the edge of the upscale Monte Vista neighborhood has raised similar criticism here from leaders of local teachers unions, though it's also next to San Antonio College and near more modest neighborhoods in the San Antonio Independent School District.
"Whether (Great Hearts) is going to have a different model here (than in Arizona) is unclear. But they are in direct contrast to neighborhood public schools, the heart and soul of a neighborhood," said Shelley Potter, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, whose members work at SAISD. "I believe corporate chain charter schools contribute to the disintegration of neighborhoods and the sense of community that so many families desire."
Peter Bezanson, superintendent of Great Hearts Texas, said the location near the city's center is ideal for its first school and affirms its goal of reaching diverse student populations. He argues that other charter schools here and nationwide don't offer transportation mostly because government funding doesn't cover it. Great Hearts works with families to solve transportation issues, he said.
Great Hearts is "marketing throughout the San Antonio area, and it's incumbent on us that we place the school near where people want us and that it be accessible," Bezanson said. "The temple is in the heart of the city."
Like the non-profit foundations set up to help traditional public school districts, Great Hearts conducts a "community investment campaign," Bezanson said. Fewer than half the parents at its Arizona schools contribute to it, he said.
"We're completely tuition free," Bezanson said. "It's never understood in Arizona as anything other than a voluntary fund-raising drive. ... We have had a history of operating as a really thoughtful and fully public institution in Phoenix with students from all backgrounds."
At the temple, Great Hearts is proposing a kindergarten to ninth grade school, he said. Long-term, it envisions opening one school per year for a total of six on all sides of the city. In addition, it wants to set up an athletics program, including football, seeking eventually to join the UIL, Bezanson said.
According to Great Heart's application to the State Board of Education, it plans to open elementary, middle and high schools and have up to 557 students. Its first-year budget calls for nearly $3.8 million in expenses, including $480,000 for facility rental. It also calls for $100,000 in tenant improvements.
Bezanson said those figures were preliminary estimates to show ability to manage a budget. Enrollment and final lease agreements are among the factors determining the actual financial picture, he said.
The application bases its per-student funding on a $6,357 estimate. In addition, Great Hearts is relying on $3 million in pledged donations from the Brackenridge Foundation and the Ewing Halsell Foundation, part of a local effort to lure new charters to San Antonio.
Swanson said the proposed lease is in line with the temple's track record of renting to other groups.
Charter school rental "may be new to the temple or San Antonio, but it's not new across the country," he said. "This space is not being used six days out of the week."
The proposal comes at a time of transitional leadership at Temple Beth-El. It hired Darryl Crystal as interim rabbi more than a year ago after the controversial departure of former Senior Rabbi Barry Block. The congregation's search committee is currently vetting applicants for a hire by early summer, Swanson said.
If the temple gives the go-ahead, Great Hearts leaders said it would conduct a community meeting in October and begin to promote enrollment for next year.
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