Editor's note: This story has been expanded since it was first published. After tough questions about whether Bullis Charter School is going far enough to diversify its student body, the Santa Clara County Board of Education on Oct. 6 approved changes to the Los Altos school's admission preferences that will prioritize children from low-income families.
County board members raised concerns about whether the changes would be sufficient to fix long-running enrollment disparities at Bullis Charter School and what measures would be taken to ensure the school's student population mirrors that of the Los Altos School District.
Bullis is located within the boundaries of the Los Altos School District, and its charter is authorized by the county board of education. In 2020, 1.4% of charter school students were considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, compared to 6% of students in the school district, according to data from the California Department of Education.
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.
County board member Grace Mah, whose district represents a region that includes Los Altos, made the motion to approve the enrollment preference change, but otherwise did not participate in the discussion about the charter school at Wednesday night's meeting. She did not ask any questions or make comments. Board member Joseph Di Salvo seconded the motion but also was silent on the topic.
The remaining five trustees queried charter school officials about their plans, with some raising pointed critiques of Bullis' practices.
Board member Peter Ortiz said that he believes the future of the charter school needs to be determined based on measurable outcomes. Without a culture change at Bullis, Ortiz said he fears there may be a continued "funneling" of wealthy students into the school.
"Through every reauthorization, Bullis Charter School has promised to improve its diversity, but has not delivered," Ortiz said. "I would like to know: What about this process will make the results different?"
The admissions preference change comes after the county board of education voted in May to send a "notice of concern" to Bullis over a lack of diversity at the charter school. In particular, the county pointed to the under-enrollment of socioeconomically disadvantaged students, those with disabilities, English learners and Hispanic students.
Unless the charter school addresses these concerns, it runs the risk that the county board won't approve its next charter renewal, which had been set to come up for a vote this fall. Due to the pandemic, the state granted charter schools an extension and Bullis' charter is now set for review in fall 2023.
After working with county staff, the charter school announced last month that it would seek to add an enrollment preference for students who qualify for free and reduced price school meals. These are typically kids whose families' income falls below certain thresholds.
The changes will take effect for next school year's enrollment cycle, which begins next month.
Bullis Superintendent Maureen Israel told the board that her school values diversity and felt adding a preference for students who qualify for subsidized meals was the best approach, noting that the school can't legally have a preference for a particular racial or ethnic group. Israel said that the enrollment preference is one part of a broader effort to improve outreach and communication.
"As a free, open-enrollment public charter school, we at BCS believe deeply that we welcome all students and all families in our community," Israel said. "We know that there's a big value in having a community of diverse students and learners."
Each year, Bullis holds a lottery for students who wish to attend the school. The lottery is based on a set of enrollment preferences, listed in priority order. The county board approved two new preferences last night, for a total of eight.
The first change that the county approved last night would add a preference for students living within the boundaries of the Los Altos School District who qualify for free or reduced price meals. The preference would be limited to 10% of the total openings at each grade level and would come after an existing preference for siblings of charter school students who live within the school district's boundaries.
The charter school is also adding a preference for students living outside the school district, but within California, who qualify for free and reduced price meals. That additional preference doesn't have a cap, but is the second to last preference on the list. The only preference that's lower is for any remaining applicants who live in California.
Some county board members questioned why the charter school is limiting the in-district enrollment preference to 10%.
"If, in fact, you are serious about recruiting more socioeconomically disadvantaged students then that number should be higher … considering that you're so far behind," board member Rosemary Kamei said.
Superintendent Israel responded that 10% is merely the number of spots being reserved for those who qualify for free and reduced price meals, and these students can still be admitted through other preferences. She also noted that only 6% of Los Altos School District students are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
Los Altos School District Superintendent Jeff Baier told the county board that the district doesn't believe the new enrollment preferences will be enough to bring the charter school's student population in line with the district. In particular, he said that there's no guarantee eligible students will even apply.
If they do, Baier said that because the preference is for the open seats at each grade level in a given year and the overwhelming majority of the charter school's openings are for the incoming kindergarten class, it would take a long time for its overall student population to mirror the district.
Except for kindergarten, the rest of the grade levels typically have vacant seats in the "low single digits" annually, according to a letter the charter school sent the county.
"The charter school must abide by the law as a publicly funded school," Baier said. "The only acceptable response is demanding results that rectify the long-standing lack of diversity in BCS student enrollment."
Roughly a dozen members of the public spoke at Wednesday's meeting about the admissions preferences, with roughly a third favoring Bullis and the rest expressing concerns about the charter school.
Bullis Charter School parent Ying Liu said that her two daughters were part of the school's English language learner program and felt immediately welcome on campus.
"For me as a parent, I'm in full support of this preference change. I think it's a representation of our education philosophy and our school culture," said Liu, who currently serves as the chair of the Bullis Boosters Club and has previously run unsuccessfully for the Los Altos School District Board of Trustees.
On the other side, Kelly Berman said that she is concerned about the charter school's enrollment plans because they are missing accountability and consequences.
"When acting on its own, Bullis Charter School repeatedly and illegally practices segregation in our public education system and we are all accomplices by allowing these practices to continue," Berman said.
Charter school board president Francis La Poll objected to the idea that there is segregation at Bullis, calling that claim "offensive."
"We are more diverse than the Los Altos School District. We have a lower population of Caucasian, or white, students," La Poll said, noting that his school has a much higher proportion of Asian students.
State data from 2020 shows that 51.9% of charter school students were Asian and 22.5% were white. In the Los Altos School District, 34.4% of students were Asian and 43.2% were white.
Ortiz questioned La Poll's characterization of the charter school's diversity.
"You only mentioned the Asian population. What about the Latino and Black population?" Ortiz asked. "There's more to diversity than just the Asian community."
Latino students make up 8% of the school district's population and 3.9% of the charter school's, according to state data. There are few Black students at both Bullis (0.5%) and the school district (0.6%).