Stanislaus education board denies charter school for refugee, immigrant students

The Stanislaus County Board of Education rejected a petition Tuesday for the New Colossus Academy, a proposed Modesto charter school to specialize in educating refugee and immigrant students and asylum seekers.

In voting 4-1 to deny the petition, the SCOE board supported staff findings that concluded the charter school’s plans for finance, transportation and academics were flawed.

Board Member Kim Spina disagreed with the board motion to reject the petition, but wanted to provide more time for the New Colossus petitioners to address concerns raised by SCOE.

The charter petition to educate 300 to 400 students at Grace Lutheran Church on West Orangeburg Avenue in Modesto was largely developed by teachers and staff at Davis High School’s award-winning Language Institute. It was opposed by the superintendents of Modesto City Schools, Ceres, Turlock and nine other school districts in the county.

Alice Pollard, board chairwoman, said the five board members had not been lobbied by the superintendents. “They have had no bearing on our decision,” Pollard said. “We understand the passion that went into this petition and that these educators want what is best for the students. We want that as well.”

Board members did not explain their specific reasons for turning down the charter school petition.

The NCA plan was to replicate the proven newcomer education program at the Language Institute and offer those services to newcomer students and other English learners outside the boundaries of Modesto City Schools. Supporters said the charter school needed to be separate from the politics and culture of Modesto City Schools.

SCOE board member Kim Rose claimed the Modesto school district has made big strides to work with the Language Institute staff and “you have not sat down with them. They need to sit down with (MCS Superintendent) Sara Noguchi and work this out.”

Language Institute staff members have often brought their concerns and requests to the school board and district office over the years, and say their requests were often ignored.

Lindsey Bird, an LI teacher and co-petitioner for NCA, said Rose possibly referred to a district committee created a year ago to discuss new policies implemented for the Language Institute. The staff stopped attending the committee sessions after being told they couldn’t discuss a key policy that limits college opportunities for older students, Bird said.

“I feel confident we exhausted every option within the system before making the decision to try and go charter,” Bird said in response to Rose’s comment. “The problem with MCS isn’t the system, it’s the culture. From our experience, it is a culture that does not value the experience and expertise of classroom teachers.”

Davis teachers who supported the charter school petition were teaching classes Tuesday morning and could not attend the SCOE board meeting.

Noguchi, who tried not to oppose the NCA petition in public forums, has said she would prefer to collaborate with the LI staff.

A SCOE staff analysis poked holes in the NCA petition, saying it lacked details on initial budgeting, a dual enrollment arrangement with Modesto Junior College, transportation for students who would travel to the school from other districts, nursing services and other needs.

Lynn Lysko, one of the lead petitioners, said the group could work with SCOE on those details if there was a conditional agreement to allow the petition. After the meeting, Lysko said SCOE was premature in asking for contracts with book suppliers and janitorial services. The group was waiting for authorization to move forward on a lot of the items requested by SCOE, she said.

MJC Professor Sam Pierstorff said teachers at the college are accustomed to managing younger students in their classrooms, including high schoolers taking classes for college credit and home-schooled kids who are 14 or 15, plus English learners. “We see them all the time,” Pierstorff said. “We have tons of translation tools and robust EL programs. We have tutors, and teachers have office hours to go over their essays.”

The charter school for 7th through 12th graders would not have the age restrictions of school district-based programs, which push students who are 18 years or older to adult schools. The school had planned to accept students up to 21 years old.

Sarah Williams, who works for the resettlement agency World Relief, said she assisted four 17-year-old new arrivals this past summer. She told the board she dreads telling older teens they are aging out of high school and lack the credits to graduate with a diploma.

Halima Rajima, a Language Institute graduate, said LI students were in tears a year ago after getting letters from a Davis High principal denying them additional time in the program. The decisions were rescinded after students protested to the school board.

“It will be a big help if this gets approved,” Rajima said, not long before the SCOE board turned down the NCA petition.

Bird said she agreed to work on a charter school proposal with County Superintendent of Schools Scott Kuykendall in 2018 and endorsed him in the November election. Bird said she thought she had the support of the county superintendent until the petitioners were informed of SCOE’s recommendation to deny the petition last week.

In response to questions from The Modesto Bee, Kuykendall said in an email that some of NCA’s responses to SCOE’s concerns about the petition were incomplete or did not adequately address the concerns. Only the merits of the petition, and not the opposition from school districts, were “thoughtfully considered before a recommendation was made per the Education Code,” he wrote.

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Ken Carlson covers county government and health care for The Modesto Bee. His coverage of public health, medicine, consumer health issues and the business of health care has appeared in The Bee for 15 years.