James Lee-Gunder, 6, draws at his home in San Diego while on summer break from school, Aug. 7, 2023. He will be returning to Sparrow Academy this year. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Why this matters

Research shows children who change schools can face negative consequences, including lower test scores, lower graduation rates and developmental harm due to the disruption of relationships and changes in their education.

A La Mesa charter school is working to accommodate some of its students after failing to obtain necessary permits for a new location and initially turning away most new applicants.  

Families were informed through a letter late last month that their child no longer had a seat at Sparrow Academy, a K-8 school authorized by the La Mesa-Spring Valley Schools district, because the location they had planned for an expansion was not properly permitted. Parents, once sold on the school’s kindergarten play-based learning, told inewsource they were worried about their child’s academic performance at another school. 

But within days of receiving inewsource inquiries about students being disenrolled, Sparrow Academy walked back part of that decision. 

Some families said Sparrow reached out late last week informing them that the school could accommodate their children, after all, by combining classes – something parents say it was already doing since at least the previous year. 

Through on-site classes and a homeschool program, Sparrow Academy served some 400 students last school year. It originally launched in 2008 as Xara Gardens, a charter school then authorized by Lakeside Union School District out of a need for “alternative methods to education” in San Diego County, but has since undergone several name and location changes. 

The school is a member of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education and uses curriculum aligned with the phases of child development and a focus on conscious relationships with oneself and others. 

Its campus is owned and located on the La Mesa Seventh-Day Adventist Community Church.

School leaders had blamed permitting problems for the lack of space. In a letter to parents, Executive Director Consuelo Manriquez said officials had been looking for new campus options for months. A new site was identified in May but the school had been “recently” informed the location lacked the necessary permits to house a school.

The school’s legal team tried to address the issues and officials worked with the district to secure a location to no avail, she said.

As of June, the school estimated it would have 460 students for its on-site and homeschool programs, 418 of whom were confirmed as enrolled — a number Manriquez described as an “overwhelming increase in enrollment.” 

The news left Emily Sablosky-Ortiz scrambling fewer than two weeks before the school year to find another school for her son, Silvio, who attended kindergarten at Sparrow Academy last year.

She and another mom, Lindsay Lee, worried their children would fall behind at another school after attending Sparrow: The charter school, unlike traditional public schools, offers play-based kindergarten — meaning academic instruction such as reading and writing is not the focus.

Lindsay Lee sits with her son James Lee-Gunder, 6, and her newborn, Marsali, at their home in San Diego, Aug. 7, 2023. James will be returning to Sparrow Academy this year. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“Our children didn’t get that instruction,” said Lee, whose 6-year-old son James attended the school last year. “They’re going to be behind — significantly behind — which I’m worried is going to make my child really not like learning.”

Sablosky-Ortiz also said officials should have warned parents months in advance that downsizing enrollment was possible, arguing that they had been aware of space concerns as early as last school year, when her son’s class had to relocate to a church across the street after an electrical fire damaged all three of the school’s kindergarten classrooms.

Both moms have since been told their children have re-secured their seats at Sparrow.

The school did not say how many children had been disenrolled — or how many have since been re-offered their seats — though it said new and some returning students were affected. Two classrooms were initially eliminated.

Sparrow’s website states that it “guarantees admission” to existing students, and that it uses a public random drawing for the rest of the open seats when enrollment exceeds capacity. Preference is given in the following order: children of current employees; siblings of currently enrolled students; children of Sparrow and La Mesa-Spring Valley district board members; students currently enrolled in or reside in the elementary school attendance area of La Mesa Dale and La Mesa Arts Academy; and “all other students as permitted by law.” 

La Mesa-Spring Valley Schools Superintendent David Feliciano clarified that the district does not play a role in the permitting process and it’s Sparrow’s sole responsibility to obtain appropriate permits “to ensure a safe school and facilities for staff and students.”

“At this time, our understanding is that Sparrow has now taken steps to remedy the disenrollment situation and that no existing students will be disenrolled,” Feliciano told inewsource. “As part of LMSV’s oversight function as charter authorizer, we are following-up with Sparrow about the situation and capacity issues at their current school site.”    

Most Sparrow board members did not respond to requests for comment from inewsource, with the exception of Robin Keith who didn’t answer specific questions but mentioned the school’s commitment to offering a good education.  

In addition to Sparrow Academy’s facility struggles, it’s faced ongoing financial concerns since at least November 2020, when charter officials said it had revenue losses and unexpected expenses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The school, which receives public funding based on its enrollment, anticipated a more than $200,000 deficit for its more than $5 million budget this year. It’s unclear how the newest enrollment numbers will affect its revenue.  

Sparrow’s first day of school is Thursday. 

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Andrea Figueroa Briseño is an investigative reporter at inewsource and a corps member for Report For America, a national service program that tasks journalists to report on undercovered communities and issues. She covers education and focuses her reporting on Latino students and families who are part...