A public charter school in San Bernardino admits it had a policy in its student handbook that required students to maintain a minimum grade-point average of 2.0. When the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California caught wind of the policy, it fired off a stern letter demanding the school make immediate changes.
"They were very public about the fact that they were excluding students based on their GPA," says ACLU Staff Attorney Jessica Price. "We heard about this happening elsewhere but this is the first time we've seen it done so blatantly. Because charter schools are public schools, they're required to serve all students, including students who are struggling."
The policy was allegedly printed on the school's website and in the school's handbook, but not part of the school's official charter, which was first approved in 1999 when Public Safety Academy officially opened. The school touts its strict regimen of good character and good grades and the principal says the GPA policy was written with good intention.
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"Our intention behind having that minimum 2.0 GPA was simply to hold our cadets to high standards, make sure they're succeeding academically," said Principal Jennifer Stickel. "We never want to be perceived as being discriminatory so we have definitely removed it from our handbook."
In December of 2013, PSA sent 23 letters to parents that states:
"A review of our semester grades indicates your student's grades have not improved. To that end we are remanding your student to his/her home school. Please deliver his/her books to the school office on January 6, 2014 and we will then release transcripts."
Stickel says the San Bernardino Unified School District forced her to rescind the letters, although the ACLU says many of those students had by then already moved to other schools. Another set of 17 letters were sent to students in 2014 but the principal says those were written as "possible" remands to the students' home schools. Stickel says the 2014 letters were intended to bring parents in for meetings with the school to discuss how they could work together to improve the students' grades.
One mother who spoke to NBC4 on the condition of anonymity says her daughter was kicked out of the school just before beginning her senior year.
"Suddenly the principal called and said she could no longer come to the school," the woman told NBC4, "because of her grades." She said her daughter's grades have since improved and requests to return to Public Safety Academy were also denied.
"I didn't know it was illegal," the mother said. "Otherwise I would have argued for my daughter to stay." That was she says she hopes other parents learn from the ordeal. "We have to investigate. I didn't investigate enough."
Part of what that mother says made it more difficult for the family to understand was that most of the paperwork sent home from the school was written in English. It's another issue the ACLU brought up in its demand letter to the school, claiming the students were not getting equal access to education if their parents couldn't understand the letters the school was sending. Stickel says the school has hired additional translators to help with parent correspondence.
Stickel says some students the school attempts to work with parents of students who don't want to go to school at Public Safety Academy. She says those who don't put in the effort to keep their grades up to par often find themselves unhappy, saying that often times they are better suited within a regular school system.
But she adds that losing the GPA policy may send a bad message to students.
"We don't want to send the message that it's OK for them to get D's and F's and slide under the radar," Stickel says. "We want them to work hard."
PSA's President of its board of directors, Rich Lawhead, says PSA tries to offer a private school environment for a community that can't afford it. He says the charter itself was approved by the San Bernardino Unified School District.
"Everyone went over this a few years ago and everything was fine," he says. "Now all of a sudden it's brought to our attention. As soon as we know there's an issue, obviously we want to change it."
The GPA policy, though, is not part of the charter, only part of the student handbook. The ACLU is asking the school to change the charter to reflect the lack of a GPA requirement to attend the school but that would take approval by the SBUSD.
The ACLU says it believes illegal practices like GPA minimums are happening at many more charter schools in Southern California, but says parents are too afraid to speak up. Price says parents need to put their children's education and future ahead of any fears, adding that she believes some charter schools are skewing their academic achievements to appeal to state and federal programs for grant money.
Public Safety Academy Charter School recently received a $600,000 grant from the State of California it says it will use to improve programs to bridge the gap between high school and the real world, where many of its students hope to become public servants as police officers or firefighters.