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Cesar Chavez School Fires Principal; Sarvis Extends Proposal to Keep It Open

Actions at endangered campus increase stakes in negotiations and at Tuesday's school board meeting

Amid a frantic struggle for survival, the parent-run governing council of Cesar Chavez Charter School — Santa Barbara’s only fully bilingual school — has fired Principal Eva Neuer.

“She’s done a lot of hard work for the school,” said parent Jonathan Lang, a member of the governance council, which dismissed Neuer on Tuesday. “We wish her well.”

With the Lower Eastside school under threat of closure because of low test scores, meanwhile, Santa Barbara School District Superintendent Brian Sarvis has put forth a proposal that would keep the school running as a dual-immersion program, but under tighter control by the school district.

Some teachers and parents at Cesar Chavez are relieved by the proposal, but others are wary. The life or death of the school could hinge on the success or failure of some delicate, high-stakes meetings coming up Monday and Tuesday.

“We do appreciate the district’s willingness to work with us,” Lee Fleming, governance council president, told Noozhawk on Saturday.

“But we are not conceding the point that we are not comparable with the other schools (on student performance). We just cannot agree with that — that we are a failing school.”

The technical issue in question is whether the Santa Barbara school board should 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.

Like all charter schools, Cesar Chavez, located at 1102 E. Yanonali St. adjacent to Franklin School, runs on public money but enjoys near-complete local control, enlisting its own parent-dominated governance council to make major decisions. But every five years, it must go to the school board for charter renewal. The school’s charter officially lapsed last month.

District administrators, led by Sarvis, have said the school’s test scores are abysmally low — so much so that the school doesn’t meet state requirements for renewal. Parents and staff at the school have disagreed with this assessment, pointing to their own version of the data, which they say shows the school’s students to be performing at least on par with others in the district.

In any event, the school is popular. In its 10-year existence, Cesar Chavez has grown from about three dozen students to 256, and now boasts a sizable waiting list.

Now, as the school board prepares to determine the school’s fate Tuesday night — the 7 p.m. meeting will be held in Santa Barbara High School’s auditorium, 700 E. Anapamu St., because of anticipated high turnout — Cesar Chavez’s governance council is scrambling to address the district’s concerns.

In particular, parents and teachers have been working day and night to strengthen the language of the charter — which is akin to a charter school’s constitution — to better address matters such as the performance of English learners. Sarvis has said 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.

They also have been amending the charter to include more mention of professional development for teachers.

On Monday, Sarvis will meet with the school’s governing council in an effort to forge an agreement based on his proposal. If successful, this could save the life of the school, as the ultimate decision-makers — the five-member Santa Barbara school board — have been caught between the two sides, and would likely appreciate a signed accord between them. Especially given the state-imposed deadline to make a final decision by Dec. 15.

But making an agreement might be easier said than done.

During an emergency meeting Saturday, some members of the Cesar Chavez governing council expressed misgivings about Sarvis’ proposal.

“I feel as though our hands are tied,” said Cesar Chavez council member Cristina Wood. “Is there any room for negotiation? ... If we say no to the proposal then is our school closing on Dec. 15?”

Cesar Chavez Charter School was founded in 2000 on the campus of Franklin School on Santa Barbara's Lower Eastside. Two-thirds of the school's more than 250 students are considered English learners.
Cesar Chavez Charter School was founded in 2000 on the campus of Franklin School on Santa Barbara’s Lower Eastside. Two-thirds of the school’s more than 250 students are considered English learners. (Missy Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo)

Specifically, Sarvis’ proposed resolution strips the governing council of its authority over the school’s instructional program, reducing it to an advisory body.

It does not call for charter renewal. Rather, the resolution extends the length of the current charter for the remainder of the school year. Then, it calls for the school to propose a new five-year charter altogether, with help from district consultants. (This could also require a name change.)

In addition, the proposed resolution includes a condition that some at Cesar Chavez find particularly bothersome: increasing instructional time in English for English learners.

“There’s no such thing as a dual-immersion school with more English,” said council member Maria Del Rey, referring to how the dual-immersion model is based on a 50-50 split between languages. “I am extremely, extremely nervous. We’re talking about a question of autonomy for our school.”

Others see Sarvis’ proposal as a sign of hope.

“I know he’s a politician, but it sounded like he wanted to work with us,” said teacher Vivianna Gonzalez, referring to a recent visit Sarvis made to the school’s parents and staff.

Lang urged the Cesar Chavez community to keep an open mind.

“There are a lot of similarities between what they (the district) want Cesar Chavez to do and what we want to do,” he said. “We have to find the common ground, but maintain the vision of the school.”

The proposal also would require the school to pay the district $40,000 for a consultant to make curriculum changes with the goal of boosting scores for English learners.

Still, Cesar Chavez parents and staff are not happy that the district has given them only 10 minutes to make their case at Tuesday night’s board meeting.

“This is outrageous,” Lang said. “I don’t understand how in good conscience they can give a school 10 minutes.”

As for Neuer, who came to the school in 2004, Lang said the council is constrained by confidentiality laws from talking about the circumstances surrounding her dismissal. But it isn’t uncommon for schools to change leaders when test scores are consistently low. Neuer did not return Noozhawk’s calls for comment Saturday.

The council is putting together an advisory committee to look for her replacement, and plans to launch a nationwide search for a successor.

When Cesar Chavez 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.

The campus 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.

On Saturday, school board member Susan Deacon said she hopes the school can live on.

“I’ve always wanted it to survive, I just was unclear about how to get to the point where everyone would feel good about a final product,” she said. “It looks like we’re finding a mutually agreeable way.”

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

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