Bullis Charter School

Bullis Charter School's north campus, on Portola Avenue in Los Altos.

Bullis Charter School needs a change in culture to counter its lack of inclusiveness of socioeconomically disadvantaged students relative to the Los Altos School District.

That was a theme articulated by the majority of the seven-member Santa Clara County Board of Education last week as it discussed the school’s long-standing problems with inclusive enrollment. According to the board, the charter has consistently underenrolled students who qualify for federal free or reduced-price lunch programs, as well as those who are Hispanic, English learners or have special needs. Socioeconomically disadvantaged students make up 1.7% of the total BCS enrollment, according to state figures, compared with LASD’s 6.7%.

Founded in 2003, BCS serves 1,100 K-8 students.

BCS officials responded to the allegation, articulated by the county board in a May “notice of concern,” by proposing a preference in its annual enrollment lottery system for such students, capped at 10% at each grade level. The county board approved the BCS plan at its Oct. 6 meeting, but not without stern remarks that hinted board members would no longer tolerate perceived inequities that go back a decade.

With last week’s county board action, BCS added two new preferences for incoming students – a relatively highly ranked preference for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and live within LASD boundaries, capped at 10%. Qualifying students who reside outside district boundaries but within the state will also receive a preference, but ranked near the bottom of BCS’ lottery preferences. The changes will take effect as the school’s open enrollment period begins next month.

Addressing the diversity gap

BCS parents and representatives who spoke at last week’s meeting welcomed the changes, saying they would encourage diversity and further enhance the school’s reputation.

“Bullis is a free public school, open to all,” BCS Superintendent Maureen Israel said.

But county board members and other parents referred to BCS as a “segregationist” campus, with its $5,000 annual donation separating the haves from the have-nots.

“I’m glad we have some commitment (on the new enrollment preferences),” said county board member Peter Ortiz, “(but) if there isn’t a culture change at Bullis, there’s going to be a continued funneling of only wealthy students into your student body. (The $5,000 donation) can be an obvious barrier to enrollment if you are planning on enrollment of socioeconomically disadvantaged students.”

BCS Board of Directors president Francis La Poll found the segregationist term “offensive,” and noted that the charter school’s enrollment is reflective of LASD, itself part of a wealthy community and the student advantages that come with it. He added that BCS is nondiscriminatory and more diverse than LASD. BCS has a majority population from Asian backgrounds, while LASD still maintains a majority white or Caucasian population.

Israel said it is illegal for schools to recruit students on the basis of race, or preferences for certain populations, so reaching out to those qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches was the best option.

County board member Rosemary Kamei asked why the 10% figure BCS proposed wasn’t higher. Israel said the figure was what the BCS board approved, but the school would be open to further discussion.

County board members said the issue of underenrolled, underprivileged students surfaced before when the BCS charter was up for renewal, in 2012 and 2016. Each time, board members said the school promised to address the disparities but did not. The BCS charter was up for renewal this year, but the state Department of Education postponed the renewal to 2023, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.

LASD Superintendent Jeff Baier said his district has raised the problem of BCS lacking socioeconomic diversity for more than a decade. He and LASD parent supporters suggested that a reduction in enrollment could help BCS get a handle on the matter. But La Poll dismissed the idea, saying that expanding the school would give BCS greater opportunity to achieve the goal.

The county oversees the charter for BCS, which serves 1,100 K-8 students, mostly within LASD attendance boundaries. BCS started 18 years ago, after the district closed Bullis-Purissima School due to low enrollment. In reaction, Bullis-Purissima parents, who wanted their own neighborhood school, founded BCS. It has since grown into a popular alternative-education school, emphasizing individualized education. BCS has been a major source of contention for LASD, competing with the district for facilities and tax dollars.

County board member Grace Mah, whose District 1 includes BCS and LASD, did not participate in the discussion, but she did make a motion to approve the new enrollment preferences. Fellow board member Joseph Di Salvo, who also was silent, seconded the motion.