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A School Divided 

The self-segregation of a Marin County school district

click to enlarge SPLITTING UP Currently planned is a move of a public school to Marin City while retaining a charter school in Sausalito.
  • SPLITTING UP Currently planned is a move of a public school to Marin City while retaining a charter school in Sausalito.

A proposal to consolidate two schools raises issues of racial segregation and equity with deep roots in southern Marin.

The Sausalito Marin City School District currently oversees three campuses. Two—Bayside Elementary and the Martin Luther King Jr. Academy middle school—are traditional public schools, while the K–8 Willow Creek Academy is a charter school. The district's proposal would move Bayside students from their current Sausalito campus, which they share with Willow Creek, to the Marin City MLK campus, creating two schools district-wide—a traditional K–8 in Marin City and a K–8 charter in Sausalito. Reasons for the move include dollars currently lost on doubled-up administrative fees—up to $250,000 a year—and educational opportunities that could come with a larger student body, among others.

But the landscape of the move concerned community members at a meeting on Jan. 15. As anyone familiar with the history of southern Marin knows, Sausalito and Marin City share a zip code and little else. While Sausalito touts a median household income of $110,000, Marin City's median is just over $46,000. And while the hillside city overlooking the Bay is roughly 93 percent white—ACS data through 2011 reports that there is one black person living in all of Sausalito—the unincorporated county pocket tucked away behind it houses the largest concentration of African Americans in Marin County, at roughly 45 percent. To consolidate the two traditional public campuses, both with a black student majority, in Marin City while keeping the charter with a black minority on its current hillside campus in Sausalito would be a move that, some say, looks an awful lot like segregation.

Sausalito resident Marie Simmons invoked a Jim Crow comparison, saying the move would create an educational system that was "separate but equal."

"How do you prepare [the kids] for an increasingly diverse society if you segregate them?" she asked the district board. "Studies have shown that children do better if you integrate them."

Another community member expressed her fears in starker terms.

"From what I've seen, it looks like all the board wants to do is bring the kids down to Marin City and dump them," she said.

Board president William Ziegler acknowledged that the community has historically seen the charter and traditional schools in the district as competitors, but added that he believes this to be "a perception, not a reality."

The charter utilizes an interdisciplinary, project-based approach along with its textbook curriculum, and has scored the highest of the three schools on the last five California Academic Performance indexes. It's expected to expand onto the campus vacated by Bayside.

However, although Willow Creek is located in Sausalito, it doesn't draw students solely from the wealthy city. Several Willow Creek parents pointed out that the charter is open to anyone in the district and draws more than a hundred students from Marin City. Its student body is far more racially diverse than the city in which it sits, with 30 percent Latino students, 20 percent African American students and 10 percent Asian students.

"We are all 94965," one parent said, referring to the zip code. "Anyone can go to Willow Creek."

But through back-and-forth between parents and administrators at the meeting, that statement, though theoretically accurate, was revealed to paint an imperfect picture of the charter system.

For example, although technically any child in the district can attend the high-performing school, it's not possible for all children in the district to do so. Under school finance law, the district could not disband its traditional schools and still receive basic aid funding.

And superintendent Valerie Pitts made another point. Like many charters, Willow Creek requires a minimum of 50 hours of parental volunteer time.

"Our parents are working," she said, speaking for the traditional public schools. "They can't necessarily come and volunteer."

Other community members stood up in support of the traditional schools.

Julius Holtzclaw, an administrative assistant to the district and a graduate of Bayside and MLK, addressed what one community member labeled as an unfair attitude of shame toward the noncharter schools.

"I feel like I'm always having to defend Bayside," he said. The school's API rose an impressive 56 points from 2011 to 2012, and now stands at 808, not far below Willow Creek's 859. MLK's score still lags below the two at 698, though it's risen 60 points over the past five years.

Pam Dake was one of several people who requested more time before the impending move.

"We would have an opportunity to create collaborative dialogue between Sausalito and Marin City, which we don't have now," she said.

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