In its latest effort to fend off forced closure because of low test scores, Cesar Chavez Charter School — Santa Barbara’s only bilingual school — wants to change its name to Adelante Charter School, which means “moving forward” in Spanish.
On Tuesday night, parents and faculty will present their plan for the new charter school to the Santa Barbara school board. Like the Cesar Chavez school, Adelante Charter School would be a dual-language immersion program, with students spending half of the day learning in English and the other half of the day learning in Spanish. And like Cesar Chavez, Adelante would be located at 1102 E. Yanonali St.
Lee Fleming, a member of Cesar Chavez’s parent-run governance council and a founding member of the proposed new school, said Adelante Charter, if approved, would be a much more academically rigorous school than Cesar Chavez, and would place a higher value on testing and assessments.
“Cesar Chavez school has done amazing things culturally, but academically it never really fully realized its potential,” she told Noozhawk on Thursday. The new name, she said, is “a symbol of what we were willing to do (to keep the school open) and a symbol of change.”
The Cesar Chavez saga began in October, when the school’s parent organizers went before the Santa Barbara school board with the hope of getting their recently expired five-year charter renewed. (Charter schools are funded with public tax dollars, but enjoy more local control than traditional public schools. However, their charters are subject to approval or denial by the locally elected school boards of the districts in which they reside.)
To the dismay of the Cesar Chavez community, the school board was informed by district administrators that the 10-year-old school’s test scores were by far the lowest in the district — and too low for the school to qualify for renewal.
For a time, it appeared the Eastside school was doomed.
However, instead of denying the charter — and effectively closing the school — the school board took the middle road, opting in late November to keep Cesar Chavez open until the end of the school year, but under certain conditions. Foremost among them was the understanding that Cesar Chavez’s parent-run governance council would come back to the school board with a plan for restructuring by the end of the school year.
In mid-March, the school suffered another major blow, this time from the California Department of Education. On March 10, the state released a list of the persistently lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in California, saying that major restructuring was needed at all of them, such as firing the principal and at least half of the staff. Cesar Chavez was on the list. What’s more, the state had proposed that all five charter schools on that 188-school list be closed.
Fleming said the state report removed all doubt that changing the name was the way to go.
“It’s hard to say, ‘We are changing — doing everything different — but keeping all the same students and all the same teachers and keeping the same name,’” she said.
In addition to the new name, there could be some personnel changes. If approved, the new school would require the entire staff at Cesar Chavez — including all teachers and even the new principal, Juanita Hernandez, who started March 1 after moving from Temecula — to reapply for their jobs.
After the hearing on Tuesday, the school board will have 60 days to approve or deny the request, but Fleming said she’s been told the board will decide in 30 days. The faster time frame is important, she said, because if the school is approved, a lot of work will need to take place to get Adelante up and running by September.
Academically, a major proposed change would put students of differing native languages together, learning side by side in the same classrooms. As it is, native English and Spanish speakers are separated for at least half the day. (About two-thirds of the school’s students are native Spanish speakers.)
When the battle first erupted in October, parents and teachers were resistant to the district’s claim that the students’ test scores lagged behind those of all other Santa Barbara schools. At the time, they disputed the district’s calculations, saying the statewide benchmark for determining school success — the Academic Performance Index — didn’t apply to the dual-immersion model. They said the scores of the younger students were artificially low, owing to how those students were burdened with the added challenge of learning lessons in a new language. They said that the benefits of dual-immersion didn’t really begin to set in until sixth grade or even middle school, by which time, they said, most Cesar Chavez students were performing at least as well as their peers.
But in making the pitch for a new charter, the tone of the school’s entreaties has become more conciliatory.
“Our prior school culture was, unfortunately, one in which API scores were seen as unimportant,” the founders of the proposed new school wrote in a letter to Santa Barbara schools Superintendent Brian Sarvis in late March. “Teachers were not regularly assessed or supported; very few student assessments were in place, including those to identify at-risk students; and communication and collaboration with the district were undervalued.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.