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Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Danger of Losing Its Charter

Parents say that despite low test scores now at Santa Barbara’s only bilingual school, the students are 'competitive' by sixth grade

With low test scores, Cesar Chavez Charter Elementary — Santa Barbara’s only bilingual school — is in danger of becoming the city’s first public school in years to close, and parents aren’t happy about it.

In a show of support, Cesar Chavez families on Tuesday night packed the Santa Barbara school board meeting to overflowing capacity, even though no board action or discussion was scheduled.

“We know why our test scores are low,” parent Lee Fleming said. “Fifty percent of (the youngest) students are not even learning to read in English.” But by sixth grade, she said, the students’ scores “are very competitive.”

Cesar Estrada Chavez Dual Language Immersion Charter School, at 1102 E. Yanonali St., opened in 2000 partly in response to 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.

Like all public charter schools, Cesar Chavez — where about 85 percent of the students are Latino, and about 65 percent are considered English learners — enjoys a good deal of independence from the rest of the Santa Barbara district. The school, for instance, has its own board of directors — made up mostly of parents — who make most of the financial decisions.

But every five years, the school must go before the Santa Barbara school board to renew its charter. Cesar Chavez’s charter expired Monday.

Last week, school administrators released a report stating the Cesar Chavez has potentially failed to meet the academic requirements for renewal.

“They are the lowest-performing school in the district,” Superintendent Brian Sarvis said, though he added that he’s reserving judgment until the district finishes a more thorough report.

The school board, he said, most likely will take up the matter in the middle of next month. If the board decides against renewing the charter, then the next discussion will be whether to close the school, he said.

Despite the low scores, the school’s parents insist that in the long run, the students fare better than many of their peers at other schools.

The parents say the best way to assess bilingual elementary schools is to gauge the performance of the sixth-graders, who have benefited from years of bilingual learning, in classrooms that are unusually socio-economically diverse.

“We’ve got hourly wage-earners’ kids and kids of Ph.D. families that are totally on par,” Fleming said. This, she said, is largely because of the extensive bicultural interaction between students, who tutor each other in their native languages.

Fleming says test scores show that 50 percent of Cesar Chavez’s sixth-graders are proficient in math, compared with about 35 percent of sixth-graders in local schools with similar demographics.

Sarvis said that while that may be the case, such statistics may reflect a “cherry-picking” approach to analyzing the data. He added that the school has not posted the improvements the state suggests is necessary for renewing charters.

Cesar Chavez also ranks low in comparison to other regular public schools across the state.

In California, every public school is given a 1 to 10 ranking based on test scores, with 1 meaning a school scores in the lowest 10 percent, and a 10 indicating a performance in the top 10 percent. In the most recent release of test scores, Cesar Chavez scored a 1 — not only when compared with all of California’s schools, but also when stacked against schools across the state with similar demographics.

Sarvis said the state recommends that charter schools seeking charter renewal post a ranking of 4 or better.

Still, Sarvis said the district is taking a closer look at the data — taking the parents’ number-crunching into account — and soon will present a more detailed report to the school board.

“I don’t want to jump to any conclusions,” he said Tuesday night. “I want to give it a good, close look.”

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

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