Bullis Charter School announced Sept. 16 that it is looking to add a preference for low-income students to its annual enrollment lottery, a move that comes after the Santa Clara County Board of Education warned the school that its charter renewal was at risk if it didn't diversify its student body.
The K-8 school, located in the Los Altos School District, is looking to set aside 10% of its open seats for children who qualify for free or reduced price school meals, typically those whose family's income falls below certain thresholds.
The county board of education is expected to review the proposal at its Oct. 6 meeting. If approved, the change would take effect in time for next school year's enrollment cycle, which begins this November.
The Santa Clara County Board of Education voted in May to issue a "notice of concern" to Bullis Charter School for under-enrolling socioeconomically disadvantaged students, Hispanic students, English learners and those with disabilities compared to the Los Altos School District's student body.
Bullis' charter had been up for renewal this fall, but a recent state law gives the school a two-year extension due to the pandemic. The county board is now slated to review the charter in the fall of 2023, according to county board member Grace Mah, whose district includes Los Altos. The school needs to have an approved charter to operate.
Mah called this latest move to prioritize low-income students a "big step" toward balancing the charter school's demographics with those of the Los Altos School District.
"This has been something that the board has been interested in for a long time," Mah said, adding that Bullis needs to be accessible for all families.
Bullis board member Sanjeev Dutta said the school has been working with the county since last year on ways to "promote the diversity" of its student body and ensure equal access to its educational offerings.
"(The preference) is another way that we will continue to address the diversity question in our school and be proactive about it," Dutta said.
In 2020, 1.4% of students at the charter school were considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, according to data from the California Department of Education. That's compared with 6% of Los Altos School District students. The state's definition of socioeconomically disadvantaged includes those eligible for free or reduced price meals, as well as those whose parents or guardians did not receive a high school diploma.
There has long been concern from the community about the enrollment disparities between Bullis and the school district Mah said, adding that she knows some will want to see further action beyond what the 10% preference proposal.
The county board's decision to issue a notice of concern in May was a "very strong" message to the charter school, Mah said, indicating that its renewal could be affected if Bullis didn't institute changes.
Although Mah said she couldn't speak for whether the rest of the board members would now be willing to approve Bullis' charter renewal when it comes up in 2023, she said she personally was pleased with the decision to pursue an enrollment preference for low-income students.
"Of course it's the outcomes that will really matter," Mah said. "How close they get to LASD will be interesting."
The other groups that the county said Bullis is under-enrolling -- Hispanic students, English learners and those with disabilities -- aren't directly addressed in the proposed enrollment preference.
According to Mah, it wouldn't be legal to institute a preference for a particular race and adding one based on disability status could be challenging because many students aren't assessed for a disability until they are enrolled in school.
Dutta wouldn't say whether the school is going to pursue additional enrollment preferences, but said that discussions are ongoing about ways for Bullis to increase diversity.
"I wouldn't say that this is one and done -- definitely not," Dutta said. "We do consider and talk about other things, but I think this just rose to the top in terms of (being) immediately actionable and effective."
The charter school's enrollment preferences have long been a source of debate in the community. The school holds a lottery each year to determine which new students are admitted, which is governed by a set of enrollment preferences
Bullis' current enrollment preferences include those who live within the boundaries of the Los Altos School District, children of staff members and siblings of existing students.
In 2019, the charter school and Los Altos School District sparred over a preference for those living within the attendance boundaries of the former Bullis-Purissima Elementary School -- its closure in 2003 sparked the creation of Bullis Charter School. In January 2020, the charter school dumped the enrollment preference, which the school district said favored wealthier families.