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Cesar Chavez School Dinged By State as It Outlines Plan for Restructuring

Draft charter gets early support from district officials despite news that the school still ranks among the lowest-performing in California

Hoping to avert school closure because of low test scores, parents and faculty from Cesar Chavez Charter School on Tuesday night sought to show the masters of their fate on the Santa Barbara school board that the district’s lone bilingual school is on the path to betterment.

Although the school board appeared guardedly supportive of the proposed new charter — which could include a name change — a fresh piece of ominous information dropped this week. On Monday, the state Department of Education released a list of the persistently lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in California, and Cesar Chavez Dual Language Immersion School is on it.

The 188 schools on the list will be required to implement some form of drastic restructuring, such as firing the principal and at least half of the staff. What’s more, Superintendent Brian Sarvis said, the state has proposed that all five charter schools on that list be closed, though he added that the exact rules seem to be in flux.

“Frankly, the state is making up the rules on the run,” Sarvis said Tuesday night. “I don’t know how that stands right now.”

The state list is the latest setback to 10-year-old Cesar Chavez, which has been scrambling all year for survival. The ordeal has reignited old debates about the effectiveness of bilingual education and the wisdom of basing major school decisions on test scores.

Typically, charter schools, though financed by public tax dollars, enjoy broad autonomy, with parent-dominated boards making major financial decisions. But for Cesar Chavez — a dual-language immersion program where students spend half of their time learning in English and the other half in Spanish — that all changed this fall.

The saga began in October, when the Eastside school was up for its five-year charter renewal, and the Santa Barbara school board was told by district administrators that the school’s test scores were too low to qualify. Instead of denying the charter — and effectively closing the school — the school board in late November took the middle road, opting 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 — that is, a new charter — by the end of the school year. If the board doesn’t like what Cesar Chavez comes up with, the school still could close this summer.

Since late November, Cesar Chavez has been in the midst of a high-speed metamorphosis. The former principal was fired in November and her replacement, Juanita Hernandez, began last week. There also has been changeover on the parent-run governance council.

Lee Fleming, president of the parent council, said she isn’t overly worried about the state list, because the school in essence is ahead of the curve in meeting its mandate to restructure. It has replaced the principal, for instance. And by writing a new charter, the school is effectively closing, as might be required. It’s just that it might reopen shortly after as an improved school, she said.

“At the end of the day, a charter belongs to the community,” Fleming told Noozhawk after Tuesday’s meeting. “We’ve really looked internally, and we’ve said ... ‘This is what we need to do,’ and we’re doing it.”

Among the biggest proposed changes is how students of differing native languages would learn 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.)

“That alone will probably make a huge difference in our test scores,” Fleming said, adding that the recommendation is based on the latest research.

Another major cultural shift for the school is how parents and faculty are paying much closer attention to research on best practices, she said.

Despite Fleming’s confidence about the changes, Cesar Chavez could run into trouble from the state if the powers that be find that the new school is too similar to the old. As such, school representatives are in the midst of an internal debate about how drastically to change the name. The preliminary proposal is to keep it almost identical: “Cesar Chavez Two-Way Immersion School.” Some have advocated doing away with the beloved Cesar Chavez nameplate to further protect the school from unwanted state scrutiny.

Most board members on Tuesday night seemed to hold their cards close.

Trustee Kate Parker praised the school’s dramatic efforts.

“I’m really pleased with the direction it’s going in,” she said, but added, of the new proposal, “Is it significantly different than the old school? Probably not. ... That’s where I’m worried about what the state is coming down on.”

The most critical board member was Bob Noel.

“I voted for your school to have a second chance, but not a blank check,” he said. “I think this charter needs a drop-dead clause (that states) if this school continues to fail, we’re not going to wait another five years” to close it down.

As for the state list, the news comes at a time when the Obama administration is encouraging states and school districts — through praise and monetary rewards — to take drastic action against lagging schools. Most notably, he applauded the controversial decision last month of a Rhode Island school board to fire the principal and all of the teachers at a chronically underperforming high school. His praise of the move has drawn fire from large teachers unions such as the American Federation of Teachers.

Cesar Chavez is the only school in the Santa Barbara district on the state list; three others are in Santa Maria.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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