With deep concerns about a local charter school’s academic rigor, Sequoia Union High School District officials committed to working alongside colleagues at the county Office of Education to support students.

In a letter sent to the San Mateo County Board of Education, high school district administrators called out perceived programming deficiencies at Oxford Day Academy, and sought to collaborate in pursuit of improvements.

The letter continues an ongoing series of issues with the East Palo Alto school identified by both county and high school district officials, who have expressed reservations with the charter’s unique educational approach.

“This is about making sure every student in our district boundaries has the tools to succeed,” said Mary Streshly, superintendent of the Sequoia Union High School District.

Streshly plans to participate in the committee formed to address potential shortcomings identified in a report issued when county officials reviewed the application to renew the charter, according to the letter.

Mallory Dwinal, CEO of Oxford Day Academy, welcomed the district’s contribution. But she balanced that perspective by defending the merits of her school’s program.

“We share [Sequoia Union High School District’s] enthusiasm for this stakeholder meeting. [San Mateo County Office of Education] is facilitating this conversation as a meeting of equals, with the goal of building positive relationships and trust,” she said in an email.

Looking toward the committee’s work, Streshly called on county officials to pay careful attention to the need for support programs designed to address the specialized needs of students attending Oxford Day Academy.

“As a majority of students targeted for recruitment by Oxford Day Academy are from East Palo Alto and are generally known to be high needs students who require specific structures and special needs resources in order to support their own efforts to surmount a range of challenges, we would request that the committee focus primarily on how these special needs will be met,” said the letter.

Dwinal took exception with such claims, suggesting Oxford Day Academy’s success rates are comparable to those of the district.

“[Oxford Day Academy] is performing exceptionally well by objective measures. These measures include strong standardized assessment data and student credit attainment — stronger, in fact, than the district’s own comparable indicators,” she said.

The school is in its third year after its initial charter application was denied by the Sequoia Union High School District, before being approved by the county board. Since the county blessed the charter, it is responsible for examining future petitions. Late last year, the county board approved the five-year charter renewal application but not without first raising serious issues with the quality of programming at the charter.

“The innovative and aspirational model of ODA is compelling, but the school must find a way to successfully provide supports and interventions to students as they learn the rigors of high expectations,” said the report issued in November. “Without a shift in the model or additional resources to engage, motivate and support the students’ academic success, the charter renewal review team agrees that the ODA system is causing real harm to individual students.”

Oxford Day Academy’s model focuses on students splitting time between a classroom and working on service projects with neighborhood organizations, in an effort to hone a passion for community activism. Sequoia Union High School District officials denied the initial application in part due to doubts the program could be effective. It had about 100 students last year.

The high school district has received 29 students who left Oxford Day Academy and encountered significant issues enrolling at comprehensive schools, said Streshly. She said students leaving the charter were often “dejected and demoralized,” as many were required to take classes again, stunting their progress and presenting challenges in matriculating through classes.

Dwinal disagreed, claiming the charter’s records do not support such claims and that requests to the district for verification have gone unanswered. Alternatively, she suggested some of the students who joined Oxford Day Academic from the district needed specialized assistance.

“When they transferred to us, they were already credit deficient and some ultimately chose to return to [Sequoia Union High School District],” she said.

Improved collaboration with the local high school district, better support for students new to the country, a more comprehensive counseling program and amendments to special education are among recommended fixes found in the county’s report to prevent causing any additional hardships for students.

Streshly said the problem is not systemic, but rather specific to Oxford Day Academy’s program.

“It’s not a technical glitch to have students walk away from a school with a transcript full of F’s,” she said. “And it wasn’t until we raised alarms that that changed.”

For her part, Streshly said she was uncomfortable suggesting specific improvements which could change outcomes for students. Instead, she preferred to focus on the work alongside county officials to address areas of concern, which the report said should be addressed by April.

“We feel this is a productive step forward and we completely applaud the county’s effort to put more support into Oxford Day Academy,” she said. “We worry a little about the timeline, but I think we go one step at a time.”

Meanwhile, Dwinal expressed optimism the forthcoming discussions could lead to a better education for local students.

“Just as we hold our students to high expectations, we hold ourselves to the highest standard. We welcome the opportunity for continuous improvement because there’s no excuse for a school to give its kids any less,” she said.

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