With fewer than half of eighth-graders testing proficient in English and math, parents in two East San Jose school districts have declared a middle-school crisis and are pressing for opening new alternative and charter schools.

Having to send her seventh-grade son to Sylvandale Middle School created an academic crisis and worries about safety, said Mayela Razo, a parent in the Franklin-McKinley School District. She and other parents joined People Acting in Community Together to press Franklin-McKinley officials to improve choices for parents. Similarly, PACT will put neighboring Alum Rock School District officials on the spot Monday.

In front of 300 people at St. Maria Goretti Church in San Jose two weeks ago, Franklin-McKinley leaders pledged to consider new options.

Superintendent John Porter called the middle-school situation "intolerable." "We agree with them; our seventh- and eighth-grade scores are unacceptable," he said. But he disagreed that opening new schools would solve the problems; improvements must be put in place across the board for all students, he said.

Charter operator KIPP Bay Area Schools is meeting this week with the district to talk about collaborating and sharing expertise. But it's not clear the district will welcome KIPP's proposal to open a new 400-student charter middle school, or any other charter plans.

In Alum Rock on Monday night, parents beseeched officials to approve another KIPP middle school.


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KIPP Heartwood, the national charter organization's inaugural South Bay school, has posted stellar test scores after it opened in Alum Rock eight years ago and has a long waiting list. Its first class graduates high school Thursday -- with 47 of 57 seniors headed to four-year colleges.

Parents are clamoring for their children to have similar opportunities. Those with children enrolled in Franklin-McKinley middle schools talked of children afraid of being terrorized in rest rooms, of dismal academics and of dangerous neighborhoods around the schools.

Lourdes Cortés talked about her struggles with Bridges Academy. Her son, who just finished eighth grade, turned in no homework for three months. Even though she is active at school and often on campus, no teacher or administrator informed her about the missing work. "I see a lot of lack of interest on the part of teachers," she said.

For his part, Porter asked parents and PACT to press the city to attack graffiti and to rezone the neighborhood around Bridges; parents complained about a nearby liquor store, tattoo parlor, halfway house and marijuana dispensaries.

Of the middle schools serving East Side students, only two perform above the state's minimum expectations on the Academic Performance Index. Last year, KIPP Heartwood scored 900 and Renaissance, a small academic school in Alum Rock, scored 855.

Why, when Alum Rock and Franklin-McKinley have succeeded in hoisting up scores at many elementary schools serving the same challenging populations, have middle-school scores lagged?

Porter said that the district made a strategic decision to put their limited resources in elementary classrooms. "We're treading water with our seventh- and eighth-grade curriculum and training," he said.

But it's not just those two districts that wrestle with teaching poor, immigrant Latino children. Those difficulties are at the heart of the achievement gap separating white and Asian children from their Latino and African-American peers, from San Jose Unified to Berryessa to Palo Alto school districts.

The importance of opening a new school, rather than trying to reinvent an existing one, is to change the culture, PACT leaders said. After all, J.W. Fair Middle School was recast as Bridges Academy two years ago, but it still posts a 719 API, only slightly above the 712 score under its previous name.

Renaissance in the Alum Rock School District will expand to a second campus in August. With 200 students applying for 96 sixth-grade slots every year, demand was apparent, Principal Doug Kleinhenz said.

He attributes Renaissance's success to its size, with fewer than 400 sixth-through-eighth-grade students, allowing the school to forge strong relationships among students, teachers and parents.

"Teachers have a better sense of what type of support each student needs," he said, "and students feel safer at school, more comfortable taking risks, engaging in the classroom and asking for help."

After hearing the Franklin-McKinley board members express interest in alternative middle schools, parent Razo said she feels hopeful.

But interest is not the same as a firm commitment.

When charter schools attract students, school districts lose precious tax revenue. Trustee John Lindner noted that the district already has five charter schools, which are independently run public schools. "I'm not sure if it's time to look at more charter schools in Franklin-McKinley," he said.

PACT parents will meet with Alum Rock officials on Monday..

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/noguchionk12.