By Thomas Ultican / Tultican
Excellent public relations and marketing mask a substandard educational program at the inappropriately named Thrive Public Schools (TPS). The misleading name indicates that this private business is a public school. It is not. Four years of assessments confirm that both San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) and the County Office of Education (COE) were correct in 2014 when they denied TPS’s charter petition.
Jan. 7, 2014, SDUSD staff felt that TPS was not ready to open and reported to the board, “Staff recommends approval of the petition to establish Thrive Public School (Thrive) Charter School, for a five-year term beginning July 1, 2015, and ending June 30, 2020.” TPS leaders wanted a charter starting July 1, 2014. SDUSD board concluded TPS is “demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program” and denied the petition.
Founder Nicole Assisi turned to Voice of San Diego which was founded by one of her benefactors, Buzz Woolley. They ran her public complaint in which she declared,
“It was not the finest hour for the SDUSD board of trustees, which ignored district staff diligence and its own existing policies to deny a school that would have served the influx of families in Mission Valley. The neighborhood, by the way, does not currently have a single public elementary school. Families drive miles to get to their ‘neighborhood’ school.”
“Thankfully, the County Board of Education has an opportunity to right this wrong when our appeal comes before them next week.”
March 27, 2014, COE staff reviewed the appeal and concluded TPS presents an “unsound educational program and does not contain reasonably comprehensive descriptions of required elements.” Interestingly, one of the reasons for denial was that the petitioner did not clearly identify the intended location for the new school. None of the four current TPS schools are in Mission Valley.
On July 9, 2014, the State Board of Education (SBE) which has gained a reputation for rubber stamping charter school petitions approved the TPS charter unanimously. Many of the Brown appointed SBE board members come directly from the charter industry.
This November 13, the SDUSD board took up TPS’s new petition for a five year charter beginning July 1, 2019, and ending June 30, 2024. Trustees unanimously rejected TPS’s renewal. In case of rejection the SDUSD staff notes say, “Thrive must submit its renewal documents to the SBE by Dec. 2, 2018, to comply with the SBE’s renewal submission timelines.”
Kristen Taketa reporting on the TPS decision for the San Diego Union said the state requires charter schools to either perform as well as comparable district schools on state testing, or it must improve its test scores over time. Taketa reported,
“The district’s analysis found that Thrive met neither of those benchmarks. … Thrive’s test scores have also declined every year since it opened in 2014.
‘“Where it may not capture the true value of what is happening and taking place at this school — as we’ve already said, the school is more than a score — it is the standard that we are stuck with,’ Trustee Mike McQuary said of the test scores at Tuesday’s board meeting.
“At the same time trustees claimed their hands were tied in denying Thrive’s renewal, however, trustees said Thrive was failing to meet an “extremely low bar” that all but two[out of 44] San Diego Unified charter schools have been able to meet in the past five years.”
In the Public Interest (ITPI), a bay area think tank, took a look at TPS’s charter renewal petition and noticed that the comparison schools listed were inappropriate because they did not serve a similar population. Even so, TPS outcomes were deficient. ITPI stated,
“When comparing TPS to schools with similar student populations, the results are even starker. Below we examine TPS performance compared with a set of schools in San Diego Unified School District with similar student populations ….”
The ITPI policy brief is packed with charts that show Thrive students are not testing well. Three of their graphics follow.
SDUSD’s staff report on the TPS petition contained many similar damning data sets. The TPS outcomes have fallen every year since its opening four years ago and schools in the peer group all significantly outperform TPS.
That data looks bad and even more troubling are the reports of uncontrolled bullying of SDUSD students by TPS students.
Thrive was the Creation of Big Money and Political Influence
Nicole Assisi, the founder of Thrive Charter Schools attended Coronado High School, a public school in Coronado, California. She matriculated to UCLA where she earned a multi-subject teaching credential. Her first teaching job was leading English classes at San Diego’s Mira Mesa High School in the 2002-2003 school year.
In 2003, she moved on to High Tech High where she worked until 2005 or 2006. Her linked in profile says she worked at High Tech until 2006 but it also says that in 2005 she went to Los Angeles to be an Assistant Principal at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy. Her husband Daniel was director of Information technology at Camino Nuevo from 2006 to 2008.
In 2008, Nicole became Principle on special assignment at De Vinci Schools (Formerly Wiseburn 21st Century Charter). At DeVinci Schools, she worked with Don Braun who played a key role in undermining the Inglewood Public School District. That same year her husband Daniel Assisi went to work for the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA).
Nicole left De Vinci schools and returned to San Diego in 2013 to start TPS. The 34-years-old Nicole was provided with $8,960 from the Charter School Growth Fund and $100,000 from the Gates supported Educause to start her “non-profit.”
Once she obtained the charter authorization from the SBE, money flowed. The known list of 2014 donations: Buzz Woolley’s Girard Foundation granted her $108,000; Gate’s Educause sent $254,500; Charter School Growth Fund kicked in $175,000 and the Broad Foundation delivered $150,000 for a total of $688,000. The next year, Broad gave another $50,000 and the New Schools Venture Fund pitched in $100,000. There is another $144,000 promised from Educause.
Destroy public education (DPE) careers pay well. Tax records reveal that Nicole’s start up “non-profit” has been lucrative. Her pay: year one $122,301; year two $133,747 and year three $142,541. Her husband holds a senior management position at the CCSA which means DPE money flows his way as well.
In 2017, TPS announced its big plan which stands to make founder and CEO Assisi a wealthy woman. A San Diego Union report said,
“The 35,000-square-foot facility will be the fourth San Diego campus for Thrive Schools and will open in about 12 months at the former site of Bayside Community Center at 6882 Linda Vista Road.”
“The project’s cost became more affordable for Thrive through the federal New Markets Tax Credit Program, which gives tax credits to for-profit businesses that are helping revitalize low-income communities.”
“Civic San Diego was eligible for the program and was allowed to sell the tax credits to whoever was making the investment. In this case, the credits were sold to the bank lending money to Thrive to buy the site.”
Although paid for with tax money, the deed will belong to Thrive Public Schools and CEO Nicole Assisi. This spring, ITPI published “Fraud and Waste in California’s Charter Schools” which noted,
“Schools constructed with private funding subsidized by New Market Tax Credits or acquired with private funds but whose mortgage payments are reimbursed through the Charter Facilities Grant Program (known as “SB740”) are typically owned without restriction.”
The old cowboy expression all hat and no cattle perfectly describes TPS. Their team is politically connected, supported by deep pocketed foundations intent on privatizing public education and has excellent marketing support but their schools are not very good.
TPS has developed support from neoliberal and conservative politicians. Their listed supporters:
- Dede Alpert, Former Assembly Woman and State Senator
- Ben Boyce, Manager of Public Affairs at Southwest Strategies
- Lisa Corr, Partner, Young Minney and Corr, LLP
- Rod Dammeyer, Chairman, CAC; Board Member, Ca. Charter Schools Ass. & High Tech High
- Tom Davis, Director of Events and Corporate Sponsorships, CALSA
- Jon Dean, Chief Information Officer, Summit Public Schools
- Donna Elder, Dept. Chair of Educational Leadership and Teacher Education, National U.
- Kerry Flanagan,Cheif of Staff, California Charter Schools Association
- Stanley V. Heyman, President, Heyman & Associates
- Ben Hueso, State Senator
- Heather Lattimer,Associate Dean, USD School of Leadership & Education Sciences
- Diane Levitt, Director of K-12 Education, Cornell
- Chet Pipkin, Founder, President and CEO of Belkin International
- Robert Schwartz, Senior Advisor, New Teacher Center
- Rebecca Tomasini, Founder and CEO, The Alvo Institute
- Tom Torlakson, Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of California
- Jed Wallace, President and Chief Executive Officer, California Charter Schools Association
- Matthew Wunder, Chief Executive Officer, Da Vinci Schools
- Mark Wyland, State Senator
Looking elsewhere on their web-pages one finds that Boyce, Davis, Elder, Heyman and Flanagan are Thrive board members. With few exceptions, the other supporters are either school privatization friendly politicians or active participants in the DPE movement.
TPS’s board member and public affairs guy, Boyce, generates excellent media coverage. For example, KPBS ran two articles that appear to take TPS claims and publish them without fact checking. One of their articles describes how Thrive is doing a wonderful job with special education children. It claims, “At Thrive, students are in the 96th percentile for academic growth, meaning while all the students may not be at grade level, they’re improving more quickly than the majority of their peers nationally.”
The same PBS article stated, “Since opening three years ago, TPS’s special needs population has grown from 11 to 16 percent of the student body.” However, based on TPS’s report to the state the 2017-2018 school year special education student percentage was 9.2 percent.
A few years ago the former on camera CNN reporter, Campbell Brown, started a publication supporting privatized education called The 74. It is primarily funded by the Walton Family Foundation which was formed by the heirs of the Walmart fortune. The Walton’s also fund the Charter School Growth fund and other DPE organizations. Earlier this year The 74 ran a puff piece with the title “Thrive Schools: How an Innovative California Charter Network Grew to 700 Students & 4 Campuses in Only 4 Years Through a Focus on Math, Literacy & ‘the Light of Kindness’” Surprisingly, they described a co-located Thrive elementary school,
“The Juanita Hills campus is co-located with Carver Elementary, a pre-K-5 school that enrolls much higher proportions of disadvantaged students and English learners than Thrive. The two facilities share the same lot, but a long blue line has been painted down the center to separate them. A Thrive parent complained that though Carver had its own library on-site, Thrive kids couldn’t use it.”
The biggest national publicist for TPS is Tom Vander Ark. He has a long history of championing students at computer screens. He was also the first education advisor for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Vander Ark described the TPS education program,
“Curriculum such as Readers’ and Writers’ Workshop and CGI Math provide collaborative opportunities for small groups to work directly with the teacher, while other students work on Chromebooks or iPads.
On October 26 the New York Times ran three articles about the dangers of screen time for children. One was called, “The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected.” The header for the article reads,
“America’s public schools are still promoting devices with screens — even offering digital-only preschools. The rich are banning screens from class altogether.”
The children trapped inside the TPS schools are being sacrificed to the toxic ed-tech agenda.
Some Final Points
Thrive Public [sic] Schools is a private business that does contract work for the state government. There are two requirements for the label public school. One is being financed by tax payers, which TPS is. The other is being governed by an elected body that sets and collects taxes which TPS is not. TPS is not a public school just like Hazard construction doing work for the county is not a public construction company. The public in the name is simply deceptive marketing.
For most of two centuries, public schools in America have been the incubators of democracy. Privatizing public education is undermining American democracy.
It costs more to run two or more school systems. Charter schools are in essence school districts. To finance multiple systems requires either higher taxes or per child spending in public schools must be reduced. The second option is the one being used. The experience of Kansas City Public Schools illuminates this issue.
Bad schools like TPS survive because they are good at marketing; have deep pocketed benefactors and political allies.
Charter schools have developed a history of fraud, abuse and instability. It used to be “another day another charter school scandal.” Now, it’s multiple scandals every day. Sure there are fraud and scandal associated with all large organizations but the charter industry is out of control.
We urgently need a moratorium on new charter schools until the obvious harm being visited upon communities by the charter industry is understood and students are protected.