The Berkeley School Board has a big decision to make Wednesday. Will it welcome an online charter school or close REALM? Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On the eve of a related vote in Berkeley, Monterey County education officials have shut down an effort by Compass Charter Schools to operate in that region, calling the nonprofit’s academic program “unsound.”

Compass, a Southern California-based charter school system offering virtual and homeschool programs, asked for similar authorization from both Berkeley and Monterey County this year. In both cases, the nonprofit had identified existing, struggling charter schools — REALM in Berkeley and Millennium Charter School in Monterey — facing possible revocation of their charters. Compass pledged to take on the schools’ debilitating debts, asking to essentially acquire the schools by merging with them, which would give it the authority to operate its own programs throughout the regions.

Wednesday is the Berkeley School Board’s last chance to decide what to do about Compass — and REALM’s future. Board members will vote on a material revision of REALM’s charter, which would merge the school with Compass. If they don’t approve the merger, they’ll vote on whether to revoke REALM’s charter because of fiscal mismanagement. Even if they don’t revoke the charter, REALM will be forced to close anyway, school leaders have said during emotional board meetings, where some families and staff have pleaded with officials to embrace Compass and keep their school open.

While a majority of Berkeley’s board members have suggested they might approve the merger under certain conditions, their Monterey counterparts denied Millennium Charter School’s material revision 6-1 in a June 5 vote. They subsequently unanimously revoked the school’s charter. (Unlike REALM, Millennium had a countywide charter, so the governing entity is the county board.)

Berkeley Unified staff has not advised the board to take a particular action Wednesday, whereas Monterey county staff produced a detailed and scathing report recommending against the merger there.

Those staff criticized the charter network for offering a bare-bones outline of its intentions with Millennium and its online program.

“No specific curricular materials, course syllabi, or courses/course descriptions for the proposed independent study and online learning programs are identified,” the authors wrote.

Berkeley board members have also criticized Compass for initially not meeting the legal standard of “reasonably comprehensive” descriptions of its proposed program there, according to the officials. The school system has since submitted more information to BUSD.

Compass’ petition to merge with Millennium also lacked mandatory information about how Compass planned to educate English learners, special education students and struggling students, or meet math and P.E. standards, the Monterey report said.

The authors raised myriad other concerns, including around vague hiring plans, missing mandatory information, and unfounded confidence that Compass’ staff would know how to run Millennium’s specific educational program and vice-versa.

J.J. Lewis, CEO and superintendent of Compass Charter Schools, tells the Berkeley School Board on April 10 he’s eager to pursue a merger with REALM. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
J.J. Lewis, CEO and superintendent of Compass Charter Schools, tells the Berkeley School Board on April 10 he’s eager to pursue a merger with REALM. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

They questioned Compass’ mainly online education program, writing, “Students learn to cooperate, collaborate, and communicate in social interactions.”

They noted that both of the virtual curriculum companies Compass uses have “legally questionable” practices. The creator of the StrongMind curriculum has been criticized for paying himself millions of dollars from an arrangement between the curriculum company and a for-profit school system, both of which he owns. The other company, K12 Inc., was sued by the state of California for allegedly inflating figures and misleading the public. That case ended in a $168.5 million settlement. The section of the Monterey report addressing curriculum relied on information from a Berkeleyside article.

Monterey County education staff also questioned Compass’ financial standing, asking how the nonprofit is in a position to absorb millions of dollars in debt from Millennium and REALM. Compass has already provided REALM with significant loans, without knowing whether the merger will go through. In Monterey, Compass’ rosy budget projections were based on unrealistic future enrollment figures, staff said.

Compass did get some good news elsewhere recently. In April, Winters Joint Unified School District authorized Compass to operate in Yolo County. Compass remains chartered in San Diego and Los Angeles counties, too.

Monterey is not the only county to come down on Compass this spring, however. After the small school district that chartered Compass in Fresno declined to renew its charter, Compass appealed the decision to the county. The Fresno County Office of Education denied the appeal, citing inadequate educational and improvement plans, as well as some fiscal and legal problems.

Board member: “This affects black and brown children.”

Berkeley officials questioned Compass CEO and Superintendent J.J. Lewis about the Fresno non-renewal at the May 22 School Board meeting. Lewis had not disclosed that county’s decision to the board — or to Berkeleyside — in relevant conversations and reports about Compass’ current operations.

During that board meeting, the second in a row that included a lengthy discussion about the potential merger, most board members indicated that they’d consider approving the request.

Ka’Dijah Brown has said it would be difficult for her to sign off on REALM’s demise. The charter school serves much larger percentages of students from low-income families and kids of color than other Berkeley public schools. Some of those families have said REALM is their students’ lifeline.

“The reality of the decision right now is this affects black and brown children,” Brown said at a previous meeting.

REALM families and staff at a School Board meeting in 2017. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

But on May 22, she and all her board colleagues rattled off a list of conditions for approval of the merger. They directed Lewis to ask the Compass board for permission to meet those requirements.

The conditions included financial commitments, promises to hold some Compass board meetings in Berkeley and an explicit vow to recognize the Berkeley teachers union at the physical REALM locations. (Compass’ online teachers are not unionized.) While the Berkeley Federation of Teachers has not taken an official stance on the merger, the Salinas Valley Federation of Teachers had taken a strong position against the merger with Millennium.

Lewis told Berkeleyside his board accepted all of Berkeley’s conditions.

“A lot of the conditions are best practices in general,” he said in a phone interview last week. “There was really no concern with them.”

Board member: “Online [learning] is not something I want to perpetuate in our community.”

Lewis did not respond to a request for comment on the Monterey decision by publication time.

Notably, one of the board-issued conditions requires Compass to commit to only enrolling up to 5% of its middle school students, and 16% of its high school students, in the online independent study program. The rest would take classes in the brick-and-mortar REALM buildings, with REALM teachers and REALM’s unique project-based-learning curriculum.

“That’s the part of the program that I really care about, and the online is not something I want to perpetuate in our community,” said board member Julie Sinai at the May 22 meeting. “There’s a lot of studies that say online programs are not academically sound. I feel like we’re being put in a position to approve an online charter school to save REALM.”

Lewis stunned board members at that meeting by initially agreeing, on the fly, to a suggestion that Compass operate REALM without enrolling any students in an online program.

Board member Ty Alper, puzzled by that response, questioned REALM Executive Director Victor Diaz.

“My understanding was the whole point of the merger was that REALM cannot survive financially without the additional enrollment from” students in the online independent study program, Alper said. “Do you believe that REALM could survive financially if that was not a part of the material revision?”

“We need some flexibility to enroll kids online,” Diaz responded. “Zero will not work.”

Alper was the only board member to say point-blank that he plans to vote against the merger.

He criticized Lewis for neglecting to mention the Fresno non-renewal and said the reasons Fresno denied Compass’ appeal, both academic and fiscal, raised alarms for him.

“The concerns about Compass are amplified for me because they mirror the concerns we’ve had about REALM over the last few years,” Alper said.

The board has set aside an hour Wednesday for the merger and revocation decisions.

“We’re hoping for the best outcome,” Lewis said last week.

Lewis’s predecessor, Sean McManus, made headlines in May as one of 11 people indicted for allegedly falsely enrolling thousands of students in a network of online charter schools, pocketing more than $50 million in state education funds. McManus, who started Compass — then called Academy of Arts and Sciences — is accused of orchestrating the scam with another man.

Lewis has maintained that Compass is no longer connected to McManus, who’s accused of committing the crimes as director of the charter management organization A3 Education.

“It breaks my heart to see that type of misuse of public funds, and breaking the public’s trust,” Lewis said. “Kids should not be collateral damage.’

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...