Last spring, teachers in Davis High School’s Language Institute helped file a legal claim for an Afghan girl who desperately needed more time in school to learn English, earn a diploma and become a breadwinner.
The girl’s father, who had worked with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was disabled by a chronic infection around shrapnel in his leg. The 18-year-old student was about to age out of the Modesto high school.
After meetings with legal staff, Modesto City Schools granted extra time in school for the young woman, giving her a fighting chance to thrive in her adopted country.
“Sad it had to come to a fight, as usual,” said Lindsey Bird, a teacher who has conducted high-stakes advocacy for refugee and immigrant students since the Language Institute was founded in 2009.
The teachers in the Davis program are ready to leave the politics of Modesto City Schools behind and believe there’s a better way to educate immigrant and refugee students from throughout Stanislaus County.
Tuesday, the county Board of Education will consider approving the New Colossus Academy as a countywide charter school.
The proposed school, using former classroom facilities and a gymnasium at Grace Lutheran Church on West Orangeburg Avenue, has promised a supportive environment and English immersion training for 7th through 12th graders from the refugee community and immigrant families.
It would accept students from outside Modesto City Schools who don’t have access to specialized education services at their schools. In addition, the charter school would not have age and regulatory restrictions that have barred certain students from the Language Institute.
Friday, a staff opinion from the county Office of Education concluded the charter school would not accomplish its mission. The staff and legal analysis recommended denial of the petition, citing deficiencies in the finance and transportation plan and dual enrollment arrangements with Modesto Junior College.
Opposition from superintendents
Superintendents from a dozen school districts, including MCS, Ceres, Turlock and Patterson, are opposing the petition, though not because they stand to lose much average-day attendance funding to the school. As a general rule, the superintendents don’t think SCOE should be approving charter schools, two of them said, but should focus on providing resources to school districts.
Ceres Superintendent Scott Siegel said the relationship between the county office and school districts was damaged when charter schools were approved and operated by SCOE under the previous county superintendent.
“That relationship is being repaired right now,” Siegel said, and another charter school approval won’t help mend the relationship.
Bird said those relationships should not be a factor in SCOE’s decision-making process. “We are robbing some of our most vulnerable students of the opportunity to thrive if we place a higher value on ‘relationships’ between” local agencies, Bird said.
New Colossus, named for the Emma Lazarus poem, is endorsed by El Concilio and other Latino groups, refugee organizations World Relief and International Rescue Committee, and a coalition that supports the Language Institute.
“It appears we have a battle of David and Goliath taking place,” said Dale Butler, a county retiree known for founding the Stanislaus County Equal Rights Commission.
Butler said the charter school for 300 to 400 students would have little financial impact on local school districts. A possible $3 million loss for Modesto City Schools, based on the unlikely scenario of 300 students jumping from Davis to Colossus, represents less than 1 percent of the district’s general fund.
Other than Modesto City Schools, school districts in the county lack special programs for newcomer students and the NCA would address that need, Butler said.
The opposition from school districts touches a nerve with members of the Latino community, who for decades have witnessed the human toll of failed education programs for Spanish-speaking students. More than half of LI students are children of immigrant families from Mexico.
“The (school districts) don’t want to allow these students to be in this amazing program,” said Debbie Avila, president of Mujeres Latinas De Stanislaus, a community organization for young women. “I graduated from Modesto City Schools in 1997 and children in the ELS program were not learning English. It was not a good program and those same people are still struggling financially today.”
In a statement released late Friday afternoon, SCOE said it recognized the New Colossus Academy petitioners are passionate about their proposed charter school and have dedicated themselves to English language learners but several concerns came forward through the review process.
“The county office dedicated multiple staff and spent many hours reviewing the petition in order to make a sound recommendation,” the statement said.
Director says students need alternative
Lynn Lysko, executive director of the proposed school, said data reveals the need for a countywide charter school for English learners. Among 6th graders in Stanislaus County with one or more years in the country in 2018, only a small percentage were meeting standards for English language arts, including 5 percent in Oakdale and Turlock, zero percent in Waterford and 4 percent in Modesto City Schools.
Some 16 percent of 7th grade English learners were meeting language standards in Stanislaus Union School District, but the numbers dropped to 4 percent in Oakdale, 5 percent in Riverbank, 8 percent in Turlock and 4 percent in Waterford.
In eight school districts, no more than 5 percent of eight graders were meeting language standards.
“These districts can’t be everything to everybody,” Lysko said. “Sometimes you need specialization and we are that specialization.”
The petitioners also want to escape what they see as a toxic environment at Modesto City Schools. As a self-governed charter school, New Colossus could free itself from school district politics that marked the Language Institute from its beginning.
In the most recent round of squabbling, the LI staff was alarmed last year by the Facebook posts of trustee John Walker, now the board president.
In responding to a news story on refugee students in June 2018, Walker declared that 18-year-old students are adults under California law and suggested that those newcomers be sent to adult school.
Placing such an age cap on the Language Institute would eviscerate the program, because high school-age refugees arriving from other countries often miss years of school during the resettlement process, giving them little time for learning English and earning credits for college admission.
The school board did raise the age ceiling for the LI program to 20 years old and adopted flexibility for enrolling newcomers in grade levels. But a policy implemented last fall now forces newcomers to graduate if they have credits for a diploma, even those reading and writing far below grade level, Bird said.
It means that the program, previously lauded for sending 90 percent of graduates to college, will graduate students who are functionally illiterate, the teacher said.
Most of the LI teachers and educators who would work at New Colossus have masters and doctorate degrees, as well as years of experience providing emotional support and quality education for students from many countries, Lysko said.
As a demonstration lab for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s foreign languages software, New Colossus could train staff from other districts in language acquisition for newcomer students. It could support school districts in Turlock, Stockton, Fresno and other cities in the process of establishing language academies for newcomers.
Possible legal action?
Modesto City Schools and the other districts have hinted at legal action to stop the charter from being approved. In a June 10 letter, the superintendents argued that NCA has not shown it will provide services to students that “cannot be served as well if the proposed charter school operates within a single district.”
Attorney John Lemmo of the Procopio law firm, representing New Colossus, said he has never seen school districts bring a lawsuit against a county over a countywide charter school. “There is not a cause of action for what they describe,” Lemmo said. “I don’t see any legal reason why the county would want to deny it.”
Turlock Unified School District says it has a newcomers language academy at Turlock High School with expanded courses and services for students. But a refugee organization was not aware of the center last month and was told by district staff the academy is a goal for the future. Turlock evidently has dipped its toe in a newcomers academy but it’s not as extensive as NCA’s plan.
“We believe our newcomers are best served in TUSD and in the community where they are trying to acclimate during their transition,” Superintendent Dana Trevethan said in an email.
A charter school could increase capacity for English learners, with 300 slots for students at New Colossus and 300 at the Language Institute for students in Modesto. The Modesto school district has said the LI will remain open, with newly hired and trained staff, though the current staff believes the program needs repair.
SCOE board members, and the staff analysis released Friday, have cast doubt on the transportation plan for students of the new school. The plan for New Colossus includes free passes for city and county bus transportation for students not taking private cars to the church. The school’s supporters also promised to work on safe routes to the school and other options.
Student speaks highly of program
Daniel Perez, a recent LI graduate, said he believes students wanting to improve their English would travel greater-than-normal distances to the charter school.
Perez, who was referred to the Davis program four years ago, said he first thought he would earn a diploma and work in agriculture like his father. But when his progress was good, LI teachers asked if he wanted to go to college and worked on building his confidence. Perez earned the grades and was accepted to UC Merced as a physics major.
Perez, whose family lives on Hart Road, west of Modesto, within the MCS high school district, traveled almost 10 miles daily to Davis High. He said Spanish-speaking is so prevalent in the community that other newcomer teens don’t bother learning English, but they would benefit from a charter school.
Some have questioned whether students would prefer to attend a program based at a high school for the extra curricular activities.
Perez said he mostly liked being in class at Davis with other newcomer students facing language barriers, so he did not feel judged in making mistakes in English.
Ronza Sampuor, one of the original students in the Language Institute founded in 2009, said sports, proms and other school activities were not a top priority for her. “We focused more on learning the language and getting adjusted to our new country,” Sampuor said in an email. “We started getting involved in sports and clubs after we learned English and were able to have conversations.”
Use of MJC facilities
Bird said the church site has a gymnasium. There are tennis courts nearby and potential plans for a soccer team under the school’s mascot, the Torches. Students with a dual enrollment option at nearby Modesto Junior College will have access to college facilities.
As approval of the charter school appears in doubt, the Language Institute is prepared to welcome a new class of students this week.
A girl named Oryana, who came from a country 6,600 miles from Modesto, will start her freshman year at Davis. Fleeing the war in Iraq, Oryana has not attended school since the fifth grade.
Teachers at the Language Institute have educated students with far less education background. But Tuesday’s decision could determine if the Iraqi girl spends her high school days at Davis, in what teachers say is a damaged program, or will learn to master English at the New Colossus Academy.
“I told her family about the ideas and curriculum of the NCA and they were excited and hoped the charter school gets approved,” Sampuor said.
Avila, the president of Mujeres Latinas, said the strength of the charter school petition is the LI’s dedicated staff.
“The students look at them with love,” Avila said. “It is because of the impact they have in their lives.”