A $3 million loss? Let’s put students — not money — first in Modesto charter decision

Lindsey Bird, center, with some of her students that are apart of the Davis Language Institute. Bee Amplified at the Gallo Center for the Art. Wednesday Feb. 8th 2017
Lindsey Bird, center, with some of her students that are apart of the Davis Language Institute. Bee Amplified at the Gallo Center for the Art. Wednesday Feb. 8th 2017

The proposal for a new charter school in Modesto serving mostly immigrant and refugee students from throughout Stanislaus County should be approved because it represents those students’ best opportunity to succeed.

It’s unfortunate that the birth of this important school, to be called New Colossus Academy, is mired in politics. That often happens when something new threatens to change something old.

On one side of the dispute are would-be Colossus founders, some of whom are responsible for nurturing an award-winning Language Institute program at Modesto’s Davis High School now serving the same new-to-English student population. If the Stanislaus County Office of Education board approves the charter next week, both the teachers and some 300 immigrant and refugee students could leave Davis for Colossus.

On the other side is the Modesto City Schools district, whose officials don’t want that to happen, for obvious reasons:

If the teachers bolt, the district would have to hire and train new, less-experienced personnel to replace them by the time the new campus opens a year from now.

If the students bolt, the district would lose funding from various government sources amounting to about $10,000 per student. If 300 students jump ship in favor of Colossus, that’s a $3 million hit to the district.

District Superintendent Sarah Noguchi says it’s not a question of dollars and cents to her, but that she only wants what’s best for these students, many from troubled places like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

What’s best for them, Noguchi says, is a comprehensive high school — Davis — with myriad wraparound services, from academic and career counseling to extracurricular activities, including clubs and sports. Isolating newly arrived teens on a campus by themselves, with few of those amenities, would slow their assimilation into American society, she says.

Those arguments make sense.

But the vision that Colossus proponents put forth — with passion, backed by years of experience dealing with immigrant students and families, learning their dreams and needs — presents a more compelling view.

Many of these teens, fresh from war-torn countries, are in survival mode. Few generally daydream about the cheerleading squad, the next football game or the prom. They’re desperate to learn English as quickly and effectively as possible so they can catch up in school and prepare for college, career and a successful life.

New Colossus instructors know how to help them, precisely because they’ve been helping them. For example, Lindsey Bird — former coordinator of Davis’ program, and still a teacher there, for now anyway — has been working with immigrant students for 10 years. She and others would use data to accurately place each student according to need, and to help each accelerate at optimum pace.

Bird and others describe frustration with district red tape and neglect. Their most visible complaint surfaced last year in The Modesto Bee when the district stopped allowing some older students to continue getting help with English at Davis because of their age.

Colossus would find a home at Modesto’s Grace Lutheran Church. Because the church previously housed a school, it offers state-of-the-art science facilities and a fine gym. “We would not be teaching out of a Sunday School classroom,” Bird said.

Colossus students would be enrolled as well at Modesto Junior College, allowing access to its library and free passes on city and county buses. University students studying to become teachers at Stanislaus State would undergo some training at the Colossus campus, and tutor its teen students.

But that’s not all.

Currently, families placed by World Relief or the International Rescue Committee must live within Modesto City Schools boundaries for their children to attend the Language Institute at Davis. If the new charter is granted, students could attend Colossus no matter where they live in Stanislaus County, and some from neighboring counties could come as well. That’s why the proposal, on Aug. 13, is going before the county Board of Education.

All involved say their top priority is doing what’s best for students. SCOE board members should see that Colossus proponents are deeply and personally invested in each of these students, and have a solid proposal. They should grant the New Colossus Academy charter.