Closure of Summit Denali denounced
Summit Denali community members, city government officials and school board trustees joined together March 8 to denounce the decision to close the Sunnyvale charter school and demand that Summit Public Schools be audited.
At the news conference, Sunnyvale Councilmember Richard Mehlinger said he remembers long before he joined the council, when parents first advocated for Summit Public Schools to bring the Denali campus to the city.
“I remember how they turned out because they believed in this school, because they believed in its mission,” Mehlinger said. “This is how they have been repaid.”
On Jan. 11, Summit Denali's parent organization, Summit Public Schools, abruptly announced the school was facing a projected $4.5 million deficit for the next school year and likely would shut down permanently after the end of the school year, leaving the school's 600-plus students suddenly unmoored.
Parents, teachers and students of Summit Denali were left in limbo for weeks before the Summit board voted March 2 to close it. Before the board's final decision, parents, students and teachers raised several alternatives to closing Summit Denali — such as running the school online instead, closing the middle school and keeping the high school in operation, or fundraising to fill the $4.5 million projected deficit.
In announcing its decision to close the school, Summit board members said they believed the school's financial issues were impossible to resolve in the long term and shutting the school down this summer would be better than potentially closing in the middle of the upcoming school year.
But the Summit Denali community is refusing to go down without a fight — and the movement for Denali's future galvanized local officials, including Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein, Vice Mayor Omar Din and Councilmembers Mehlinger and Linda Sell, to seek answers on behalf of that community.
“These students, these families, are not just rows in a spreadsheet, and it is very clear to me that an audit of their finances and operations is needed,” Mehlinger said. “More than that, this state needs to get serious about regulating charter schools. There needs to be additional oversight; these boards need to be accountable to parents. Otherwise, this is just going to keep happening.”
Tara Sreekrishnan, a trustee with the Santa Clara County Board of Education, read a written statement by Justin Kim, a teacher at Summit K2 in El Cerrito and the president of Unite Summit, the school network's teachers union.
“Voting to close Denali suddenly, with little warning and no plan to support those students and families, is in direct contrast to the mission of our school,” Kim wrote. “Speaking for teachers, we are scared.”
Kim referenced the 2019 closure of another Summit school, Summit Rainier in San Jose, as a reason why Denali's closure is especially concerning. Rainier's closure left students and teachers suddenly abandoned and displaced, much like how Denali's closure is now, he said.
“We are stripping away the future of our students,” Kim said. “This is Summit's second closing in four years. Think about what this says about Summit and their reputation as a charter management organization … parents, teachers and students are being kept out of some of the most important decisions Summit is making, and that will have drastic effects on their daily lives.”
Students, meanwhile, are scrambling to find other options.
Freya Ryan-jensen, a seventh grader at Summit Denali, said her experience at Denali was “life-changing” and that the school helped her bloom into the kind of student she never thought she could be.
“I was a mediocre student who got B's and C's … I was a textbook example of an unmotivated student, and if it weren't for Denali, that's probably how I would still be,” she said. “But from the second I stepped foot in Summit Denali … I felt more safe and welcomed than I had in a while.”
Freya said she quickly went from struggling in school to receiving A's in her classes, winning academic awards, becoming elected as a member of the student council and making meaningful and fulfilling friendships with other kids like her.
But the announcement of Summit Denali's closure left her and other students suddenly
feeling powerless, despite how much the school had done to build them up academically and socially, she said.
“I wanted to attend the meeting about the closing of my school, but the Summit board refuses to listen to us — instead, they would rather hold board meetings in the middle of the school day, when no student or teacher could attend,” Freya said. “For that reason, I have had no say in my future.”
Mayor Klein also took the board to task. “There should
be more specific oversight of the finances of all charter schools, much as there are for the public schools, so a travesty like this won't happen again,” he said.
Mehlinger agreed, adding that it's critical for City Councilmembers to raise awareness of such issues, even if they can't be immediately or easily solved by the local government.
“This is an abuse of our community … it shows a lack of care,” Mehlinger said. “These parents, these students — they deserve better.”