South Miami’s city attorney is investigating what city commissioners are calling a “racial disparity” at Somerset Academy South Miami Charter School.
The commission has instructed City Attorney Thomas Pepe to investigate the matter.
Pepe is investigating why just 1.1 percent of the school’s students are African American. About 17 percent of South Miami residents are black, according to the U.S. Census, and the neighborhood surrounding the school, at 5876 SW 68th St., is predominantly black.
“When the school came into the Marshall Williamson neighborhood back in 2009, there was a lot of desire for a neighborhood school in the community,” Mayor Philip Stoddard said. “The people who were organizing the school gave assurances that the admissions process would be open and this would become a community asset. What ultimately happened is that very few students from the surrounding community were enrolled in the school.”
Charles Gibson, the school’s attorney, disputes the numbers, which were sent to City Manager Steven Alexander by Iraida R. Mendez-Cartaya, an associate superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
Gibson also said the school tried to recruit students from the neighborhood, and that he even knocked on doors to talk to parents. The school does not keep track of the racial makeup of its student body, he added.
South Miami “should promote the school,” Gibson said. “We have an ‘A’ school in the heart of our city, who has a good relationship with the community center across the street. ... That would attract more residents, more business, more positive attention than saying Somerset South Miami is racist. If the allegations were true, I would investigate myself. I can’t have my name associated with something like this.”
Gibson’s grandfather, Theodore R. Gibson, was the president of the NAACP’s Miami Chapter.
According to Mendez-Cartaya’s most recent information, out of 475 students, the school has five black students, four Asian students and 413 Hispanic students.
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools run by someone other than the school district.
Pepe and Alexander began the investigation after an Aug. 11 meeting of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, according to Stoddard.
Gibson, a Coconut Grove attorney who was part of the South Miami Community Redevelopment Agency’s outreach program when the school opened, cited competition with neighboring schools like Ludlam Elementary and Sunset Elementary as a reason Somerset originally found it “very difficult to recruit any students, let alone any specific student in a particular area.”
“We didn’t get a good turnout,” Gibson said. “At the beginning stages, we thought we might not open up the school. We thought that, you know what, maybe this was a bad idea. Not because we didn’t think we could provide a good service, just because we thought that the demand wasn’t there.”
City commissioners say they are concerned nevertheless.
“It’s been something that has been long talked about in our community,” Commissioner Josh Liebman said at the meeting. “I’ve long been concerned about this.”
Gibson said the city is relying on incorrect numbers.
“Those numbers, from my opinion, are wrong and aren’t comparable,” Gibson said. “Again, we get back to the choices that parents are free to make. I’m a little taken aback at why they would assume that we are racially discriminating against parents or any particular group. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Pepe said he requested records from the school Aug. 25 and was told by Gibson that he would receive a response within 48 hours. Pepe received a response Sept. 5 and has since made a second request, he said.
“I wanted to see what they did to market the school to determine whether or not they were being nondiscriminatory,” Pepe said.
Gibson said part of the reason for the delay was that it took time to compile documents and research.
“When we did further research, we found that ... we could not turn over those documents because they are protected by state statute and federal law,” Gibson said. Pepe “was asking for specific names and addresses of students, and student records are protected.”
Gibson said the school’s enrollment boomed after the economic downturn, when many private-school students switched to public schools. With waiting lists at Ludlam and Sunset, Gibson said Somerset was “caught in that vacuum to absorb all of those students.”
“That window, for which people were interested or who may have wanted to switch schools in a particular area, closed because we filled up.”
Somerset South Miami has a “standard lottery process” with an independent auditor, according to Gibson.
Applicants to the lottery process are assigned a number, based on when they apply, and are not asked their race. The applicants are then chosen at random.
“It’s just like getting into Harvard,” Gibson said. “It’s hard to get in. It’s not a simple process. It’s not because you live a block away that you have more entitlement than someone else. This isn’t a municipal charter [school]. So we are not mandated to have preference to people that live in the area.”
Stoddard said one way to educate parents and prospective students is to use the multiple Head Start programs in the area.
“Obviously, parents who have their kids in Head Start are very interested in getting their kids a great education,” Stoddard said. “So that’s the place we ought to be and educating the parents. ... What we have learned to understand is that both the school and the city need to take a much more proactive role in getting parents of pre-K students to know when the enrollment lotteries are being held and when they can apply.”
Two Head Start programs in South Miami are close to Somerset: the O’Farrill Learning Center, 6125 SW 68th St.; and St. Alban’s Day Nursery, 6060 SW 66th St.
“I’m coming to you as an attorney and as a descendant of civil rights activists,” Gibson said. “I’ve been at these meetings where there hasn’t been a turnout. I’ve been at these meetings where parents didn’t want to participate. I’ve been at these meetings where we have overwhelming participants. But it wasn’t the kids or the families in the neighborhood. They just weren’t interested.”