Sunday, February 18 , 2018, 1:47 pm | Fair 60º


Santa Barbara School Board Weighs In on Future of Cesar Chavez Charter School

The board hears diverging appeals from parents and district officials on whether to close the school

Weighing in for the first time on the controversial question of whether to close Santa Barbara’s only fully bilingual elementary school because of low test scores, the Santa Barbara Board of Education on Tuesday night deliberated until well past midnight before a jam-packed crowd — and appeared divided.

At issue is whether to renew the recently expired five-year charter of Cesar Estrada Chavez Dual Language Immersion Charter School, where students spend half of their time learning in English and the other half learning in Spanish.

District officials concede that refusing to renew the charter most likely would mean the end for the Eastside school, and — barring any special steps — that its closure could happen as early as December. Thus far, the board appears to strongly favor taking special measures to ensure that Cesar Chavez stays open at least until the end of the school year.

“I think it would be unconscionable to close down the school before the end of the year,” board member Bob Noel said. “To me, that’s just out.”

Less clear is where the board stands on the larger question of renewing the five-year charter, although early signs indicate the board narrowly favors giving the school one more chance.

But the matter is far from resolved, and the board will take it up again at its Nov. 24 meeting. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking: The state-imposed deadline for a decision is Dec. 15.

Like all charter schools, Cesar Chavez runs on public money but enjoys broad autonomy, enlisting its own parent-dominated board of directors to make major decisions. But every five years, it must go to the Santa Barbara Board of Education for charter renewal. The school’s charter officially lapsed last month.

Cesar Chavez School, 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. It’s a small school, with 256 students, who all wear maroon uniforms.

When it opened, the demographic makeup of the school’s roughly three-dozen students was about 87 percent Latino and 8 percent white. Today, the school has grown, but the ethnic breakdown has changed only slightly, to 84 percent and 10 percent, respectively. About two-thirds of the school’s students are considered English learners.

District administrators, led by Superintendent Brian Sarvis, say the school’s test scores are abysmally low — so much so that the school doesn’t meet state requirements for renewal.

School officials, led by Principal Eva Neuer, insist that the students are performing on par with other students in the district. They add that dual-immersion students — who begin their grammar-school years learning in their native tongue — can’t be measured in the same way as students in a traditional setting. They say the young students temporarily drag down the test scores of the entire school. Cesar Chavez supporters say students’ scores gradually improve, and by sixth grade are generally caught up or better.

At Tuesday night’s emotional meeting, about 400 parents and children crammed into the school district’s main boardroom, filling it to capacity as well as an adjacent overflow room, which contained a big-screen TV airing a live feed of the meeting. Many parents wore headsets to listen to the debate in Spanish, as narrated by a translator. Children wore their uniforms and played in the area.

The five-member board served as a kind of jury, listening to the two sides — Cesar Chavez advocates and district administrators — with each giving wildly diverging testimonies on the effectiveness of the school.

On the one hand, Cesar Chavez staff, parents and co-founders — including recently re-elected Santa Barbara City Councilman Grant House — portrayed the school as a place that fosters incredible integration between two cultures that, in Santa Barbara, often find themselves worlds apart despite their proximity.

“When our students go out together on the playground, and when they work together in the classroom, there’s no division based on socio-economic factors, there’s no division based on race,” said parent Lee Fleming, president of the school’s governance committee.

“There’s one thing that every child needs to know, and that’s, ‘Can you help me in English, or can you help me in Spanish?’ There’s no division in our community, and that is the strength that will be lost forever if the school closes.”

On the other hand, Sarvis and other administrators presented chart after chart showing how the test scores at Cesar Chavez — no matter how you slice it — are by far and away the lowest in the district.

“Board, it hurts me to have to give you this report,” Sarvis said. “These are the nicest people in the world, and it’s hard to tell you anything negative about them.”

He went on to say how, in his opinion, data provided by the school intended to show the students performing on par with others in the district is misleading.

For instance, addressing the claim that the students catch up by the sixth grade, Sarvis countered that Cesar Chavez advocates didn’t break out the data for English learners, who generally are considered at high risk for dropping out. He said a closer examination reveals that just 18 percent of the school’s sixth-grade English learners scored proficient in English language arts, compared with 29 percent of English learners across the district.

Administrators also displayed a chart indicating that Cesar Chavez was among the three lowest-performing dual-immersion charter schools in California, out of a field of about 60.

District officials added that the matter is not about money, pointing out that — for complex school-financing reasons — closing Cesar Chavez and letting the remaining schools absorb the students actually would run counter to the district’s financial interests.

However, district administrators did allow that Cesar Chavez missed one of its conditions for renewal by only a paper-thin margin. (To qualify for renewal, charter schools need to meet only one of four minimum standards; Cesar Chavez was zero for four.) Last year, had Cesar Chavez scored a mere two points higher on its Academic Performance Index — a state-assigned score of 200 to 1,000 given to every school to reflect the aggregate performance of its students — it would have met one of the state’s four minimum requirements, thus negating the need for the entire discussion.

Some parents found that fact infuriating.

“We would not be having this discussion if our API was 649 instead of 647 — two points out of 649,” parent Cornelia Alsheimer-Barthel fumed. “Did you do a recount?”

House, too, betrayed his borderline exasperation at the district staff’s position, saying he found the tenor of the dismal test-score data to be generally at odds with his day-to-day experience, and therefore implausible.

“These kids are coming in fully prepared — with cultural competence up the wazoo,” he said. “There’s something fundamentally good about this school, and the measurements are not showing it.”

On the board, the most skeptical of Cesar Chavez’s claims was trustee Kate Parker. “It alarmed me to learn you have never looked at your English-learner data this closely before,” she said. “There seems to be a sense of denial about some of the data.”

Trustee Susan Deacon also expressed concern about the test scores. “I think we all really value what you value about your school, but we have to be careful we’re not doing a disservice to some of those children,” she said. “Those scores should be disturbing to everyone at that school.”

Surprisingly, Noel — normally a stickler for test scores, and who voted against the formation of the school as a trustee in 2000 — expressed a willingness to give the school another shot, albeit with oversight that he proposed should be “intrusive” and “draconian.”

“Looking at the data, you have to recognize the school has not done a good job,” he said. “But I do not want to give up on it.”

Most sympathetic to the school seemed to be trustee Ed Heron, who, like some of the parents, also was troubled by how the school missed one of its targets by a margin that was nearly negligible.

“Cesar Chavez is special,” he said. “Trying to judge them by two points seems so out of the realm of reality.”

Heron also spotted some legal language allowing school districts and charter schools to form joint committees for the purpose of resolving disputes. He asked why that had not happened; no one had a good answer. Before the night was through, the board appointed two members — Heron and Parker — to serve on such a committee.

Interestingly, the swing vote could shape up to be trustee Annette Cordero, who, before her days on the school board, was one of the school’s founding members.

On Tuesday night, Cordero held her cards fairly close, on the one hand remarking that the ordeal never should have come as such a surprise to the school, but on the other saying she didn’t feel comfortable comparing the school’s test scores with those of the district’s traditional schools.

“We don’t have any other school in which the data are so unclear,” she said.

As for Sarvis, he said he doesn’t believe that the school is willing to play by anyone else’s rules.

“I don’t see they have it in their hearts to take ownership of this problem,” he said. “You’re still being told the school is doing just fine.”

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

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