It is Monday afternoon on an unseasonably sunny and warm day at Cesar Ch¡vez Charter School. A kindergarten class is eating their snacks in the shade while a 2nd-grade gym class goes station to station in a blur of smiles and squeals across the field, all of them in the telltale maroon polo shirts and khaki pants of the school’s uniform. At the other end of the campus, past the courtyard that Cesar Ch¡vez shares with Franklin Elementary, a 5th- and 6th-grade combination math class, taught entirely in Spanish to the 14 burgeoning bilingual speakers, works its way through the properties of zero.
Such is life at one of Santa Barbara’s most bold and, some would say, most important educational experiments: a K-6, dual-immersion English/Spanish elementary school that has been growing steadily in both population and popularity since its doors opened nearly a decade ago. But, with its charter up for renewal from the district’s Board of Education this month, chronically low standardized-test scores have put the future of Cesar Ch¡vez on the rocks, and a potential closure now looms large on the horizon. “So far, I haven’t found a single measure that would qualify them for renewal,” explained District Superintendent Brian Sarvis recently, before adding apologetically, “By all counts, they are our lowest performer.”
The Superintendent’s opinion is in stark contrast to the hundreds of parents, teachers, students, and Cesar Ch¡vez supporters who have been turning up at School Board meetings since news broke early last month about the charter renewal situation. Ranging from emotional testimonies about the importance of dual-immersion programs in a multi-language community like Santa Barbara, to nitty-gritty number-crunching arguments that point out the flaws in the state’s Academic Performance Index (API) system, the proCesar Ch¡vez camp has been a constant presence during public comment even though the issue has not been an actual agenda item at board meetings. Furthermore, holding true to a stipulation in the state’s Education Code about charter school renewal standards, Sarvis and his staff have in recent weeks been reworking the data from past API results and the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program in an attempt to potentially unearth silver linings to the broad-brush clouds of such metrics. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep over this, but the deeper I get into the numbers, the more I’m convinced that the school just isn’t making the grade,” summed up Sarvis.
While there is no denying the unimpressive ranking that Cesar Ch¡vez received when it was recently compared to other public elementary schools and public elementary schools of the same demographics (in both cases, Cesar Ch¡vez ranked in the lowest 10 percent), the school is far from failing, according to Principal Eva Neuer. The only principal that the school has known since it opened in the fall of 2000 at its former site on the Santa Barbara Junior High campus (Cesar Ch¡vez later relocated to classrooms at Girls Inc. before landing permanently at Franklin School in 2003), Neuer took the helm in the summer of 2004 just as the school received the thumbs-up on its first charter renewal and became large enough to necessitate the principal position. “They are judging us based on one lump, aggregate number that doesn’t tell the whole story about what we are doing here,” explained Neuer earlier this week. “Also, you have to remember, we are not a regular school, so it is really hard to compare us to other elementary schools.” In fact, according to Lee Fleming, president of the school’s governance council, Cesar Ch¡vez is the only K-6 school of its kind in the state of California.
What Neuer and the school’s governance committee have found in their analysis of the numbers-especially when accounting for the unique curricular characteristics of Cesar Ch¡vez-is a portrait of a school that is achieving at a much higher level than its overall rankings indicate. First of all, Cesar Ch¡vez, as part of its 50/50 dual-immersion format, does not begin officially teaching language arts to students in their secondary language until 3rd grade. And, with roughly 85 percent of their students Latino and some 65 percent considered English learners, this particular circumstance is especially significant since state testing for math and language arts starts in the 2nd grade. According to Neuer, in a school as small as Cesar Ch¡vez (there are approximately 260 kids enrolled), the all-but-guaranteed zeros earned by the 2nd graders taking a test in a language they have not yet learned how to read is enough to drag down the school’s overall score.
Secondly, the school only passed the 100-student enrollment marker four years ago, and this year’s kindergarten class for the first time represents the ideal balance between kids who speak English as their first language and kids who speak Spanish as their primary language. With every student in the school taking on the challenge of learning a second language, the cross-pollinating benefits of more balanced classes are paramount, according to Neuer. “The idea is, the kids are role models for each other, depending on which language the class is being taught in. It is pretty empowering stuff.”
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, when considering the district’s duty as per California’s Education Code of comparing Cesar Ch¡vez’s test results and proficiency levels to that of other the district schools (such as Franklin, Cleveland, and Harding), Neuer and the governance committee see a school that is more “middle of the pack” than bottom of the barrel and, in some instances, actually ahead of the curve. For instance, while last year Cesar Ch¡vez ranked low in terms of 2nd-grade English Language Arts, it placed higher to various degrees within that subject area in every other grade. Further, in what they see as evidence of their stated school goal of achieving bilingual and bi-literacy status for their students after six or seven years of dual immersion rather than the year-to-year success demanded by standardized tests, Cesar Ch¡vez was well above average in 6th-grade math and right at the district average for 6th-grade English. “This is a long-term program,” said Neuer, “and it takes time to build success. When you look at our 6th-grade students-the ones that have been with us the longest-we are right there with the other schools [in the district].”
Then there is the X factor of the Cesar Ch¡vez school culture. As 2nd-grade teacher Michael Macioce puts it, “It’s like the old elephant-and-three-blind-men parable. When [the district] is judging us solely on tests scores, they are holding the tail of the elephant and saying, ‘Hey, this is pathetic.’ But they don’t have any idea about the size of the whole elephant.” To Macioce and others, the fact that Cesar Ch¡vez has a waiting list more than 100 students strong at a time when most other area schools are facing yet another year of declining enrollment is just one indicator of bigger picture success. There are also the considerations that teachers have agreed to an across-the-board pay cut to make ends meet in the school’s budget, that parents of all students volunteer at least five hours a month at the school, and, above all else, the fact that-unlike traditional public schools-every student enrolled at Cesar Ch¡vez is there because his or her family chose for them to be there. “What good could possibly come of popping this bubble right now, killing this momentum and spreading these kids and teachers into the wind?” asked Macioce.
The School Board is slated to hear a more in-depth analysis of Cesar Ch¡vez’s performance from Superintendent Sarvis and his staff, as well as a presentation from the school’s governance committee on their interpretation of the same numbers at its November 10 meeting. Should the board ultimately deny the charter renewal (according to all parties involved, however, a vote is not likely this week), Cesar Ch¡vez can appeal the decision to the County Education Department and potentially take its case to the state. In the meantime, as Neuer put it a few days ago, “It is really up to the board, I’m counting on them to listen and make a wise decision that considers all the students and their families.”