CUSD denies One & Only Academy charter petition

Harmit Singh Juneja, a petitioner for One and Only Academy, proposes the charter school to the Clovis Unified School District Governing Board on March 21, 2018. (Valerie Shelton/Clovis Roundup)

By a unanimous vote, the Clovis Unified School District Governing Board took staff’s recommendation and denied the charter school application for the proposed One & Only Academy at its March 21 meeting.

The proposed K-8 charter school focused heavily on the Sikh tradition of mindfulness and part of its curriculum would also incorporate a foreign language component for students to learn the Punjabi language, which will soon overtake Hmong as the third most spoken language in the Central Valley behind English and Spanish.

Though proponents of the charter school claimed no push of the Sikh religion will take place at the academy, one of the district’s concerns was the potential for “religious entanglements,” and that the lines between church and state would be blurred with such an emphasis on effective mindfulness tools commonly used by the Sikh and with Punjabi as the only foreign language offering.

District staff and legal consultants who reviewed the petition also found that the curriculum was not thoroughly researched enough or up to CUSD’s high standards nor was the outlined five-year forecast for the budget detailed enough. Admission policies and procedures were also found to be not comprehensive enough and another major concern was whether the school would be able to achieve a racial ethnic balance representative of the district as a whole.

Dozens of those in favor of One & Only Academy denied the claims made by staff. Some commented that they felt this was a racial issue and that the staff and board would not scrutinize charters proposed by other groups as harshly.

“Why are things being looked at through a religious lens? If someone who is not the same skin color as me, who didn’t have a turban and didn’t have a beard came and presented the same proposal would there be the same questions?,” Lead One & Only Academy petitioner Harmit Singh Juneja asked the board.

Juneja went on to say that he appreciated the time some board members took to discuss the charter with him, but he said he sought guidance from the district that he did not receive and called the overall process “dry.”

“The staff report is proof to me that we need more cultural awareness and we need more education about cultural awareness in our schools,” Juneja said. “We don’t know about each other enough, otherwise you wouldn’t think this is an indirect way to promote our religion … there are affirmations that we are non-sectarian. If we wanted a private school we could do it but a charter school is a great option because private schools will isolate our kids and we don’t want that.”

All seven board members spoke before the final vote, assuring One & Only Academy proponents that their vote is not swayed by race whatsoever and that they simply had to make a decision based on what was presented in the charter petition and not based on promises, such as assurance from Juneja that the curriculum would be updated and include another foreign language.

Board member Brian Heryford said he admires the Sikh faith and hardworking students from the Sikh community, who often receive two of the five scholarships he and his wife give out each school year. Though he admires the faith, he said as a board member he has to look at his decisions from a legal perspective and not always do what he wishes he could—in this case give the proponents of the charter more time to work on their plan before making a decision.

“As a school board member, you have to uphold the laws of the United States and of the constitution and a lot of times the state laws are not what I believe. I find great contradiction in them,” Heryford said.

He also addressed claims that the charter would decrease bullying geared toward the Sikh community. By separating many of these students, he said he feels those left behind wouldn’t learn acceptance and those in the charter school would grow in a bubble that’s not always reality.

“Where I get nervous about this school is it would take 400 students away from our elementary schools. I talked to a lot of people in the community who have been bullied and I think one of the biggest challenges as educators is how do we teach acceptance and respect for other people’s beliefs?” Heryford said. “If we are missing those students, how do we educate the students that are here. I agree your charter school would teach that in that charter school, but are we putting them in a very safe environment where it’s really not reality? I wish it was.”

Board member Chris Casado said no matter the vote, he thinks the Sikh community should continue to work with the school district and assist in educating staff and students about Sikh culture.

“There is no discrimination in this board,” Casado said. “This board cares only about kids. You [Juneja] mentioned some wonderful things tonight and the opportunities that exist and we invite you to help make America better. We do need more cultural awareness, absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. Regardless of what happens tonight, I hope you and the community join the district in elevating that level of awareness and diversity.”

Valerie Shelton :