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County school board saves Iftin charter school from closure

By KRISTEN TAKETA, San Diego Union Tribune

The San Diego County Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday to keep Iftin Charter School open for another five years, despite a report from the county’s own staff listing many reasons to deny the school’s renewal.

The San Diego County Board of Education unanimously voted Wednesday to renew Iftin’s charter. The county board will now oversee the school for the next five years.
(San Diego County Office of Education)

The board approved Iftin — a K-8 school in mid-city San Diego known for serving refugee and immigrant students — after dozens of students, parents and alumni flooded the county board with emotional pleas to keep their school open.

About a hundred people submitted public comments for Wednesday’s county school board meeting and for an April board meeting about Iftin’s renewal; most of them were in support of Iftin.

Board members said they do not want a school closure to happen during the COVID-19 pandemic, which they said would deal more stress and instability to Iftin families, many of whom are refugees or part of otherwise vulnerable populations.

Telling these kids they won’t even have a school to go back to after the stay-at-home order … is not in their best interest, especially when it comes to their mental health,” said board member Mark Powell during Wednesday’s meeting.

The board approved Iftin’s renewal on the condition that the school work with the county on addressing many issues that staff with the San Diego County Office of Education, which reports to the school board, found with the school’s operations. Those include issues related to high staff and leadership turnover, conflict of interest policies, qualifications for school leaders and procedures for handling complaints.

Charter schools are publicly-funded schools run independently of school districts. Every charter school needs to have its charter renewed by a school district board, a county school board or the state school board every five years in order to remain open.

San Diego Unified, which had authorized Iftin for 15 years, declined to renew Iftin’s charter last February. District staff said they had received many complaints about the school from former staff and others in recent years.

The district also found problems with Iftin’s lack of racial diversity, special education compliance, conflict of interest, transparency and more.

Iftin Charter School, founded 15 years ago by Somali refugees, enrolled 337 students as of last fall. More than 90 percent of its students are black; many are socioeconomically disadvantaged and many are refugees or immigrants from East Africa.

County education office staff said they were concerned about the school’s turnover. The school went through three principals and five instructional leaders in the past five years and lost 47 percent of its teachers for this school year, according to the county office.

“This lack of stability does not lend itself to a sound educational program for students,” county staff said in a report listing concerns about Iftin.

The county office noted that Iftin has been the subject of five civil lawsuits, a Department of Fair Employment and Housing complaint and an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint in the past five years.

The county office also had concerns that, according to Iftin’s charter petition, qualifications for board members are little more than one must be able to attend board meetings and be willing to “support and promote the corporation.” The county office noted that Iftin’s principal does not need to have teaching experience or a teaching or school administrator credential.

Powell acknowledged that Iftin has had challenges in the past, but he believes the school has rectified them.

“This school does not need to be shut down. It needs to be supported,” Powell said.

Ali Hori, the school’s current principal, has said he was fired by the Iftin school board in 2015 then re-hired in 2018. He has said many of the school’s issues resulted from that instability.

Some county school board members also commended Iftin’s academic performance.

“This school is a high-performing school serving a very vulnerable population,” board member Alicia Muñoz said.

When it comes to standardized test scores in math, Iftin lands in the middle of the pack compared to nearby San Diego Unified district schools, according to the county office’s analysis.

About 31 percent of Iftin students met or exceeded standards in state math tests. Iftin’s African-American students performed better in math than African-American students in most comparable San Diego Unified schools.

When it comes to English language arts scores, Iftin placed near the bottom compared to nearby district schools; it outperformed two of 21 comparable district schools. About 29 percent of Iftin students met or exceeded standards for English on state tests.

Iftin is working to improve the school with the National Center for Urban School Transformation, an organization housed at San Diego State University.

Source: San Diego Union Tribune

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