After being turned away by Carlsbad and Oceanside, the Oxford Preparatory Academy found a road to San Marcos through Borrego Springs. On May 29 the desert community's tiny school district of about 300 students approved the school's charter petition. This week the school opens its "new campus" 70 miles west of Borrego Springs, within walking distance of San Marcos High School.

The charter school failed in three previous attempts to land a campus in North County. Most recently, the San Diego County Board of Education denied OPA's appeal of Carlsbad's decision. The reason for denial most frequently cited by school officials is OPA's lack of evidence it can satisfy the requirement of the California Charter Schools Act of 1992 to "Increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving."

There is reason for concern. Of the 342 students at OPA Capistrano, only 17 percent are from low income families, less than 2 percent are English Learners. By comparison, 25 percent of the district's 38,000 students are low income, with 15 percent English Learners.

The disparity in Chino is even greater, where OPA's enrollment of low income students is 29 percent and English Learners 6 percent. District-wide, 49 percent are low income and 19 percent are English Learners.

Of the 304 students in Borrego Springs, 91 percent are from low income families, 67 percent are English Learners. Maybe that explains why OPA is not opening a campus there.

The school's charter was granted for an Independent Study Only program. It's located in a leased office building in the Lake San Marcos commercial zone. The OPA website touts it as an "ideal location" for its new K-12 campus, "set on the beautiful Lake San Marcos."

The California Department of Education defines Independent Study as "an alternative to classroom instruction." OPA says its Independent Study program is "designed to assist parents who prefer to educate their children at home." So, what makes a campus on a lake an "ideal" setting for home-based learning? A library next door would make more sense.

In the San Marcos school district, 48 percent of students are from low income families, 31 percent are English Learners. Given the students attracted to OPA's two other sites, its newest campus is unlikely to mirror the student characteristics in the school next door.

Will OPA have to rely on transfers from other schools in North County to meet their enrollment goals? Unlike other public schools, charter school students are not confined to district boundaries. The parents in Carlsbad and Oceanside who lobbied and lost in their bid for an OPA campus and want home-based schooling will now be able to send their kids to San Marcos.

Home schooling is not an option for many low income families. Students who struggle academically because of family circumstances beyond their control will continue to be the losers in this Borrego Springs/North County charter school connection.

Richard Riehl writes from La Costa. Email him at richard_riehl@yahoo.com

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