Supporters of the FAME charter school say it provides a sound education and cultural support for its students, many of whom are of Middle Eastern and North African descent.
They point to the school's Arabic-language immersion program, its small class sizes and family atmosphere, a steady improvement on standardized test scores, and an independent study program that eschews a one-size-fits-all education model.
But FAME -- one of the largest charter schools in the county, with campuses in Fremont and San Leandro and independent students throughout Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties -- also has been a lightning rod for criticism since it was established in 2005.
Now, after years of controversy, its future is in doubt.
The Alameda County Board of Education, which has oversight of FAME'S operations, accuses the charter school of violating the state Education Code, using teachers without valid credentials, failing to comply with the charter's instructional program elements and failing to maintain a governing board of at least five members. The school board also said it is concerned about the school's financial and operational viability.
The board will consider revoking FAME's charter at the end of the month unless the school provides evidence to refute or remedy the violations. Board members last month voted 6-1 to issue notice of the violations to the school. Trustee Marlon McWilson voted no, saying staff hadn't provided the board with enough information to make a decision.
On May 29, the board will consider issuing notice to revoke the school's charter and may take final action in the following 30 days.
"Our purpose is to ensure that the school is living up to its charter, to its mission, and primary is the ability of teachers to teach and children to learn," county schools Superintendent Sheila Jordan told trustees at their April 17 meeting.
"That remains our concern, that after all of this time and all of this work, that the school is still not functioning in the way that it should."
FAME's new CEO, Naeem Malik, said most of the violations already have been fixed. There is now a six-member board, the credentialing issues have been mostly resolved and an outside firm is looking after the school's accounting, he said.
He said the school just needs more time to complete the process, and he hopes the school board will allow FAME to continue operating.
"(Board members) are hurt from the old administration very badly," he said. Still, "I don't see any reason to punish the parents and kids. ... They should give us a chance so that these kids can thrive."
FAME (Families of Alameda for Multicultural-Multilingual Education) was founded by Maram Alaiwat, who served as CEO until Malik replaced her in December.
More than a quarter of its students are English learners, and the majority of those are native Arabic, Urdu and Farsi speakers. They are taught in the same classrooms as their English-speaking peers.
In addition to its Arabic-immersion program, the school observes Muslim holidays and offers a schedule that lets students out early on Fridays, in time for some to attend mosque.
It aims to serve students whose needs aren't met in other schools and is seen as particularly attractive to Middle Eastern immigrant families, though it is open to all students.
The school now has a $10.5 million budget and has grown to serve more than 1,500 students, including 684 in the independent study program, 606 at the two Fremont campuses and 227 at the San Leandro campus.
From the beginning, though, critics said there were numerous problems at the school, including failure to use state-approved materials and adhere to state education standards.
Those criticisms were exacerbated by a 2009 state audit highlighting a number of questionable business practices, including using the wrong funds to pay bills, failing to report full wages on tax forms, reimbursing employees for business expenses without documented receipts, violating the state's open-meeting law, and using taxpayer money to pay Alaiwat's speeding ticket.
In addition, some trustees questioned whether Alaiwat's $279,600 in total compensation for 2007-2008 was excessive, considering FAME has about as many students as an average middle school.
Still, the county school board renewed FAME'S charter in 2010. And Malik, who took over as board president in early 2011 and CEO in December, says the school's dark days are behind it.
"Forget about the past," he said. "Look at where it's going."
Jordan acknowledged Malik's efforts, saying he's done "a really excellent job of trying to patch the leaks in the ship."
Still, the concerns linger, and some trustees say they're tired of waiting.
"We keep being promised that these things are going to happen, and they don't, and we keep giving more and more time," Trustee Yvonne Cerrato said. "I don't have any more time. ... I'm concerned that (FAME students) are not getting the kind of education that they deserve and that they can get elsewhere."
Trustee Philip Ladew said he doesn't want the school closed -- but he does want it to improve.
"The children who attend FAME and the families of those children have been cheated," he told school supporters at the board meeting. "You deserve a better school than FAME."
But John Mittan, principal of FAME'S independent study program, said the school recently received a report from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges' accrediting commission that was "180 degrees different" from the one issued by the county.
He added that the school's standardized test scores have steadily improved, with FAME'S Academic Performance Index increasing from 704 to 776 since 2007.
"It's steady progress upward," Mittan said. "Those numbers don't lie. You can't hide from what they reveal."
Many parents also say they are pleased with the school. Faisal Ahmad, of Union City, whose son is in first grade at the Kearney Street campus in Fremont, said he and other parents with children in the same class are very satisfied.
"I don't have any complaints," he said, adding that his son is reading beyond his grade level and has developed good math skills. He said the small class size and immersion program are the most positive aspects.
"I cannot say for everyone, but at least in the class where my kid goes, most of the parents are very satisfied and happy," he said.