Tuesday could be a do-or-die night for Santa Barbara’s only bilingual school, Cesar Chavez Charter School, which has been under threat of forced closure all year because of low test scores, and which hopes to close and reopen by next fall as Adelante Charter School.

That’s the night the Santa Barbara school board is expected to give a thumbs-up or -down to the school’s exhaustive attempt to write an entirely new charter.

Thus far, it appears staff at the Santa Barbara School District is ambivalent.

The staff is recommending that the school board grant conditional approval for a four-year charter, but with some pretty significant strings attached, according to an attachment to the board agenda for Tuesday night.

The report lays out the 17 criteria the staff expects to see in an acceptable charter, and states that, so far, Adelante makes the grade on only four of them. The staff further recommends imposing a June 30 deadline for the school to make the necessary adjustments, and suggests that if the school fails to meet the deadline, the school be “dissolved.”

Cesar Chavez came into being 10 years ago in part as a result of how the Santa Barbara School District — and later, the state of California — abolished bilingual education in regular public schools. At the Eastside school, students spend half of their time learning in English, and the other half learning in Spanish.

Cesar Chavez’s struggle for survival began in October, when its parent organizers went before the school board with the hope of getting their recently expired five-year charter renewed. To the dismay of the Cesar Chavez community, the 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.

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.

Like the Cesar Chavez school, Adelante Charter School would be a dual-language immersion program, with students spending part of the day learning in English and part of the day learning in Spanish. And like Cesar Chavez, Adelante would be located at 1102 E. Yanonali St.

But Adelante organizers say the new school would be an improvement over the old in several major ways. For starters, they say, Adelante would step up the emphasis on academic rigor and testing.

The new charter also calls for more teacher training and evaluation. It would add two weeks to the school year, and it calls for the school to change to a new dual-immersion model, in which all incoming kindergartners — regardless of their native tongue — would spend 90 percent of their day learning in Spanish. That percentage would gradually decrease until fourth grade, when students would spend equal amounts of time learning in English and Spanish. (Currently, students in all grades spend about half their day learning in English, and half their day learning in Spanish.)

Last week, Cesar Chavez officials put out a news release emphasizing the school’s strengths. Among them was how the school, in their view, is an answer to a longtime trend of de-facto segregation in Santa Barbara’s schools, in which white families pull their children out of neighborhood schools with large numbers of Latino students and send them to other public schools in the district.

“Many middle-class parents, living in the areas surrounding schools that are largely Latino with high poverty rates, choose to send their children elsewhere,” a school affiliate said in the news release. (The author of the release wasn’t specified.) “There are a lot of factors that contribute to this tragic phenomenon, but here we have a school on the Eastside of Santa Barbara where more and more middle class, highly educated parents from various ethnicities choose to enroll their children alongside their language minority peers. Parents are coming to understand the great benefits, not just of being bilingual, but also of embracing diversity on all levels.”

In its recommendation, the district recognized this strength, saying the school’s proposed charter had met the district’s criteria for providing racial and ethnic balance reflective of the district’s overall population.

In the Santa Barbara elementary district, about 65 percent of the students are Latino, and 27 percent are white. At Cesar Chavez, the breakdown is 84 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

But district administrators say the school’s charter fails to meet 13 of 17 criteria. Among them is “employee qualifications,” which includes a description of the qualifications to be met by employees at the school. In one particular example, the district staff said the charter isn’t specific enough on the principal’s qualifications: “The only qualifications listed in the petition for the principal are, ‘should be an exemplary communicator both in person and in written communications and possess the organizational and interpersonal skills necessary to run a school.”

It goes on to say: “The petition does not specify whether or not the principal will be required to maintain an administrator and/or any other teaching credential.” The school’s parent governance council earlier this year fired Principal Eva Neuer and replaced her with Juanita Hernandez, who started March 1 after moving from Temecula. If the new school is approved, Hernandez and all the teachers would have to reapply for their jobs. 

Among the other criteria the school’s charter fails to meet, according to district staff, are “educational program,” “measurable pupil outcomes,” “method of measuring pupil outcomes,” “governance structure,” “health and safety” and “admission requirements.”

Meanwhile, time is of the essence for the school.

At its bimonthly meeting on May 5, the California Board of Education will formally approve a batch of new charter schools. If a charter school misses that deadline, it must wait until the next state board meeting in July. That could be a deal killer for a school that needs to hire all new teachers by the start of the school year.

It’s unclear whether the school would be able to qualify for the state’s batch approval process with approval from the local school board that is conditional.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.