Supporters of charter school for English learners make case to Stanislaus County board

Supporters of a charter school petition packed the board chambers Tuesday at the Stanislaus County Office of Education, urging members to approve a school choice for parents of English learner students who have bigger dreams.

At a time of state efforts to rein in charter schools, supporters of the New Colossus Academy in Modesto insist the proposal is what charter schools were originally about: Highly qualified teachers with innovative techniques to support students who aren’t well served by public education.

New Colossus would create college and career paths for refugee and immigrant students and other English learners in grades 7 through 12 by replicating the success of the award-winning Language Institute at Davis High School. The petition committee includes teachers and staff in the LI program, some of whom have battled school district officials for years in advocating for the vulnerable students.

The teachers have said the LI program has been virtually broken since Modesto City Schools implemented policies last fall that hindered how students could gain extra literacy and prepare for success in college.

Sara Noguchi of Modesto City Schools and superintendents from 10 other school districts signed a June 10 letter opposing the countywide charter, but they didn’t attend Tuesday’s public hearing to explain why. Noguchi said Tuesday that her attendance at the hearing would have been counterproductive to her efforts to build a relationship with the community and district staff.

Ten people spoke in favor of the charter school — the maximum allowed by SCOE’s ground rules. No one spoke against it. The board will make a decision on approving the charter in August.

The academy would lease classroom space, a science lab and other facilities at Grace Lutheran Church on West Orangeburg Avenue and open with 300 students in August 2020.

Board member Kimberly Spina said she was impressed with the Language Institute and the petition, but was disappointed officials from Modesto City Schools were not there to answer her questions.

The charter school leaders were peppered with questions from board member Chichi Nnodim-Jack, who inquired about the education plan for 7th and 8th graders and the proposed use of public transit to transport students from outlying communities. Nnodim-Jack also expressed concern the students would miss out on the extra-curricular and athletic activities offered at public schools.

Chairwoman Alice Pollard also questioned the use of public bus service, noting that a student living near Hickman would need to take a bus to the downtown Modesto transit center and then transfer to reach the campus.

Lindsey Bird, former LI coordinator and a co-petitioner for New Colossus, said the academy would provide emotional support for students who might have suffered trauma in their home countries and need confidence to believe they can achieve their dreams in the United States.

Under a partnership with Modesto Junior College, high schoolers would have dual enrollment in language and mainstream courses at MJC.

The academy would place 7th and 8th graders in the same classes as high schoolers. Parents choosing the school would be made fully aware of that, Bird said.

Joy Koski, a site coordinator who helps students prepare for college admission, said the LI has more of a family culture in which older students learn to mentor the younger ones. In 10 years of the Davis program, disciplinary problems have not occurred with older teens working on college preparation, teachers said.

The Orangeburg Avenue school site includes a gym and would have yoga classes, tennis courts nearby and possibly a soccer team. But parents choosing the school are more likely to value literacy for their children over athletics, proponents said.

Renaldo Rucker, a Davis teacher who’s on the petition committee, said the LI has staff and a support network that routinely work on issues, so students would have safe routes or transportation to school. While the charter school would serve newcomers from districts outside Modesto City Schools, which has denied inter-district transfers, it’s possible that few families from outlying communities would choose the academy.

Groups supporting the tuition-free school for newcomers and English learners include El Concilio, World Relief and International Rescue Committee, and Advocates for Justice.

Debbie Avila, a New Colossus board member, said, as a high schooler, she woke up an hour early and traveled longer distance to attend Downey High School, which was the school of her choice.

“We want to give the parents and families an opportunity if they want something better for their children,” Avila said. The petitioners will keep working on the details. “Where there is a will, there is a way,” said Avila, who’s membership director for Girl Scouts Heart of Central California.

In their letter to SCOE, the superintendents said approval of a countywide charter has to meet a legal standard, including that petitioners must show the charter school will provide services to students that cannot be served as well if the school operated in a single district.

The letter argues the standard isn’t met in the petition. “As a result, the SCOE board cannot approve the petition without subjecting such action to potential legal action,” the letter says.

The school districts named in the letter include MCS, Sylvan Elementary, Stanislaus Union, Ceres Unified and Turlock Unified. The districts did not submit anything at the hearing on financial impacts from approving the charter, which would draw average-day attendance funding from the state.

Proponents say the financial impacts from the academy, serving 300 of the county’s 26,000 English learner students, would be minimal even with plans for growth to 400 students.

Bird said she wished the district officials had attended the meeting to discuss their concerns. “That is what a public hearing is about,” she said.

Tawfik Saleh was among parents from different cultures who attended the hearing. He said his three daughters from Yemen have benefited from English literacy and acculturation gained from the LI program. The charter school would extend those kinds of services to students in other districts.

“I support the charter school because it will bring more literacy for many students who are underserved,” he said.

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