Language Institute teachers want to leave Davis, form new charter school in Modesto

Grace Lutheran Church on W Orangeburg avenue in Modesto, Calif. is pictured on Tuesday May 21, 2019. The proposed New Colossus Academy would provide an education for refugee immigrants and other students.
Grace Lutheran Church on W Orangeburg avenue in Modesto, Calif. is pictured on Tuesday May 21, 2019. The proposed New Colossus Academy would provide an education for refugee immigrants and other students. jlee@modbee.com

Teachers who earned kudos for educating refugee and immigrant students at the Language Institute in Modesto want to leave Davis High School and form a charter school.

Lindsey Bird, former coordinator of the institute, and veteran educator Lynn Lysko are lead petitioners for the charter school. It would create a pathway to college for newcomer students, additional English learners and students reading and writing below grade level.

The New Colossus Academy, for 7th through 12th graders, would be a countywide charter capable of drawing students from outside Modesto City Schools. The Stanislaus County Office of Education board will hold a public hearing on the charter petition June 11 and decide whether to approve it in August. If approved, the charter school would open in August 2020.

The proponents are in negotiations to lease school facilities at Grace Lutheran Church on West Orangeburg Avenue, which had a Christian school that closed in 2015. According to the petition, the Language Institute at Davis has outgrown its walls and there’s a need to reach out to the neediest students in the county.

“Data shows our county has an increasing number of newcomer students, and their unique needs require specialized instruction in order to provide them with college and career options upon graduation,” Bird said. “We are excited to bring a decade’s worth of experience and student success” to students from throughout the county.

Bird said the community will benefit from having literate and self-sufficient young adults entering the workforce.

The charter petition is drawing opposition from top officials of Modesto City Schools and other local districts, who say the Language Institute is an exceptional program and should continue at Davis, where it’s supported by district resources.

MCS Superintendent Sara Noguchi said the district will continue to run the LI at Davis even if most of the staff leaves. The program also serves students at Roosevelt Junior High, and recent grant awards will fund a pilot project for newcomers in 4th through 6th grades.

“It really is around what is best for the students, and I don’t believe a program that is started in a church can compare to the opportunity provided students at Davis and Roosevelt and now in the elementary schools,” Noguchi said. “I don’t see how the charter would thrive.”

Noguchi said the district has facilities, transportation and mental health services to support students attending the Davis program, some of whom were resettled from war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Syria.

Last fall, Bird and other LI staff members said the Davis program was “broken,” and they devoted energies to developing the charter school. The district office, they said, had placed an emphasis on diplomas for LI students and placed students with no English skills in mainstream classes, where they could not understand the teacher.

In one class, a refugee student copied down glossary words in Spanish because she couldn’t recognize English words.

The district also determined that a “fifth year” granted to some refugee and immigrant students was for completing high school requirements and not for additional language classes to help ensure success in college. Upward of 90 percent of LI graduates each year have advanced to college, one of the reasons the program earned 2015 awards from the California School Board Association and state Department of Education.

Students in their late teens aging out of Davis also has been an issue. To serve those newcomers, the charter would accept students up to 21 years old following Title III guidelines. The proposed charter school takes its name from the Emma Lazarus poem with the famous line -- “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Bird notified the district office of the charter school petition in April. The petitioners are backed by a five-member board, advisory board members and community members dedicated to the school’s mission.

Supporters say the facilities at Grace Lutheran are comparable, including classrooms, a science lab, a gymnasium with stage and offices. In addition, students in high school grades would have the opportunity for dual enrollment at nearby Modesto Junior College and access to those facilities.

Bird said the school has a plan for use of public transportation and the school would excel in mental health and supportive services. “Research shows that the best way for the students to be successful at school is to have solid and supportive adult relationships in a nurturing environment,” she said.

With the dual enrollment plan between New Colossus and MJC, language learners would take English courses giving them the reading, composition and speaking skills needed for success in college courses.

Ruth Luman, a literature and language arts professor at MJC, said in an email: “In a city that is consistently ranked by Forbes to be the fifth least educated in the nation and one of eight refugee-impacted areas in the state, we as educators owe it to the community and to our language learner students to provide them with the best education possible.”

Everyone from New Colossus supporters to MCS leaders are aware of the poor performance of English learners who have attended district schools for one or more years. In Modesto City Schools, only 4 percent of students in 6th to 8th grades are meeting educational standards. Less than 5 percent of English learners in 8th grade are meeting standards in the Sylvan Union School District and the school districts in Ceres, Salida, Patterson and Turlock.

The tuition-free academy would also offer evidence-based literacy acceleration for long-term English learners, or students who appear fluent in English but have not acquired the language skills for success in the classroom. Also, its doors would be open to children of resettled immigrants born in the United States.

Kion Kashefi, a business owner and board member for New Colossus, said the school would have the expertise for helping students who are reading below grade level.

“I am supportive of anything that will develop our youth in our community regardless of their background,” Kashefi said. “We are talking about students who need extra attention.”

Board members also include Joe Duran, executive vice president of Self-Help Federal Credit Union; Debbie Avila, community engagement manager for Girls Scouts Heart of Central California; Sajida Al-Khateeb, a civil engineer from Iraq whose family moved to the U.S.; and Desiree Romo, board secretary for the Stanislaus Regional Latino Chamber of Commerce.

Scott Kuykendall, county superintendent of schools, said staff members are looking at the financials, academic instruction, curriculum and other aspects of the charter petition, which will form the basis for a recommendation to the board in August. The county office would have responsibility to complete periodic reviews of the independent charter school.

New Colossus would start with 300 students at the Modesto church site. Some portables would need to be added for enrollment to increase to 400 students. A financial section of the petition projects about $4.2 million in annual state funding for the school based on 300-student attendance. The school could also tap grant funding and other sources of support.

If the petition is approved, the charter school could later establish satellites in other communities in the county without getting approval from those local school districts. It’s a concern because many districts are dealing with lower enrollments.

“Modesto has an exemplary English learner program for (high school) students who are new to the country,” said Scott Siegel, superintendent of Ceres Unified School District. “I don’t see a reason why that program at Davis should not continue to serve those students.”

Ceres has programs for newcomer students, but it would be harder to provide those services if the district had to compete with a charter school satellite. “This is a very vulnerable population and needy population, and we need to make sure they are served the way they need to be served,” Siegel said.

Bird said there are no plans for a second full academy at another location because it would not have the dual enrollment with MJC. Any duplicate campuses in high-need areas would be for newly arrived high schoolers who need a foundation in English before entering a regular high school, she said.

Imam Ahmad Kayello of the Islamic Center of Modesto said he knows of six or seven refugees in their late teens who were denied enrollment in the Davis program due to the district’s age policies. The district referred them to the online experience of adult education, but he doesn’t know of any attending adult school.

He said that MCS has been more flexible recently in giving 18-year-old refugee students extra time to make up for gaps in their education history. But a charter school with a higher age limit is needed.

Those teenagers who were denied enrollment are “in a depressing situation thinking ‘my future will be a minimum wage employee,’ “ Kayello said. “They have not been given chances that are given to other students. This is something we need to work on.”