New lease signed for charter school aiming to open in downtown Bakersfield

·5 min read

Oct. 14—Up until now, charter schools in Kern County have been limited to the outskirts of the county or schools aimed at homeschooling, such as Valley Oaks Charter School.

That could be changing soon with a new venture planning to open right in the heart of downtown: Central Academy of Arts and Technology.

On Thursday, the nonprofit behind the charter, LinkEd, took a big step in signing a lease for the school. If the charter petition is successful, it plans to serve transitional kindergartners through high school students at Old Church Plaza at 1200 Truxtun Ave.

The goal is for the Central Academy of Arts and Technology to open to students TK-8 in August 2022 and phase in older grades later.

The school's enrollment goal is 550 students, according to LinkEd board member Joanna Kendrick, who was the founding principal of GROW Shafter. The small size is part of the plan.

"What we know about public education is that it's a beast," she said. "In a smaller, more nimble independent school, you can innovate faster. You can pivot faster. That's what excites our group."

As its name suggests, the school will aim to offer an education focused on both technology and the arts with a solid base of math and literacy.

"Our children need a different set of skills," Kendrick told the crowd gathered at Old Church Plaza on Thursday. "The future of work is going to shift drastically."

The board has forged community partnerships with Bitwise and the Bakersfield Museum of Art. The downtown location is key. Some small tech businesses and art studios downtown have offered to give students externships, Kendrick said.

One of the key areas where LinkEd wants to innovate is bridging divides in a community where many school districts are segregated by income and race, Kendrick said. Students at Stella Hills Elementary, the closest Title I school, will have priority for enrollment.

LinkEd will submit its charter petition, which include signatures from parents who intend to enroll, to Bakersfield City School District Nov. 1. The district has 60 days to consider it.

Should the district reject it, the charter could appeal to the Kern County Superintendent of Schools or even the state. GROW Academy and Wonderful College Prep are both chartered through the county office.

Kendrick said there are still a lot of misconceptions about how charter schools work. They are run with public dollars and are free to the public.

The impetus for Central Academy of Arts and Technology (pronounced "cat") were parents who had experiences with charters and wanted to bring the model to Bakersfield.

One is board member Melissa Alsop, who lived in Orange County. She said her daughter struggled to get the help she needed even at a high-performing public school. Alsop enrolled her at a charter, Oxford Preparatory Academy in Mission Viejo, and the extra tutoring her daughter received was a game-changer.

"I'm passionate about school choice," she said. "Parents know their kids the best."

Board president David James said parents aren't able to have enough input into governance. This lack of access has frustrated his wife, Ingrid Berntsen-James.

"When you have a legitimate concern, you can't get access," she said. "You're not welcomed into the process."

Berntsen-James said Central Academy of Arts and Technology will give both parents and teachers more direct access to the way decisions are made. The goal, she said, is to cut out layers of bureaucracy.

Kendrick said it is the school's goal to make it a good place for teachers to work. She said that she is not anti-union, but teachers will not be unionized — which is the case at many charter schools. Kendrick said their base pay will be higher and there will be flexibility in scheduling.

"We wouldn't fit the mold of a negotiated contract," she said.

Vice chair of the board Greg West said there aren't plans for LinkEd to become a huge presence in the community. He and Kendrick are very adamant that they support public education.

"We're not here to get back at a district," he said.

West said their mission is to find students and serve them. If there were another part of the city interested in their model, they might be open to that. But to balloon quickly like charters have in other counties would defeat the school's philosophy of being small, nimble and innovative. Some charter chains end up operating a lot like large school districts.

"They lose that community feel," he said.

Launching this charter has been a two-and-a-half-year process, West said.

This slow process is more typical for launching a charter, Kendrick said, even though Kern County is more familiar with what it looks like when a millionaire farmer is in charge of the process — a very different scenario.

But she said the generosity of families like the Mojibis, who agreed to lease out the entire block of the Old Church Plaza, and other local philanthropists have helped the charter get this far.

Cyrus Mojibi, whose family has owned the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places for generations, said the Old Church Plaza has always served the community whether as a church, restaurant or event venue. His family was proud to support a project that would give parents an alternative for their education.

You can reach Emma Gallegos at 661-395-7394.

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