S. Bay charter school likely to close

Spanish-speaking students in area won't lose out on education, says superintendent

A South Bay charter school for non-English-speaking students will likely close this summer.

It’s largely a paper transaction, as there is no schoolhouse, no state academic ranking and no principal. Yet when administrators began contemplating its fate last year, scores of supporters rallied to its defense for fear that its closure would mean Spanish-speaking students would be thrown cold turkey into English-only classes.

“This is not the end of bilingual education,” South Bay Union School District Superintendent Pat Pettit said this week. Rather, South Bay schools will continue to offer Spanish-language classes for children whose parents request them.

South Bay Charter School has no campus of its own but comprises the bilingual education classrooms at the district’s 12 elementary schools in south San Diego and Imperial Beach.

It opened three years ago as a way to circumvent Proposition 227, the voter-approved initiative to ban most bilingual education except when parents sign forms exempting their children from its requirements.

Charter schools are public schools, but they operate free from many state regulations — including Proposition 227 — in exchange for meeting academic goals specified in their founding documents.

The charter allows teachers to continue doing their lessons in Spanish without having to get forms signed annually.

About 3,500 of the district’s 9,756 students in kindergarten through sixth-grade are enrolled in the charter school. The charter students attend the same neighborhood schools that noncharter students do, but their umbrella organization is governed by a special 16-member council instead of the district’s school board.

There are two reasons for the school’s imminent demise, Pettit said.

First, there’s a $1.9 million accounting glitch that goes back to 1999. South Bay changed its calendar that year. It delayed the opening of school by two months, and the state withheld two months’ worth of funding. Pettit said South Bay recovers this money only upon closure of the school.

Vilma Counts, a first-grade teacher and member of the charter school’s governing council, said the funding delay was the equivalent of an employer telling workers they won’t be paid for the next two months, but will get the money when they retire.

In addition, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin sent Pettit a letter in October to warn him that even if the charter students have no separate school, the district must separate their state test scores to give the charter school a state academic ranking. Otherwise, Eastin wrote, she would recommend that the state Board of Education revoke the charter.

“Because a charter is supposed to be ‘performance-based,’ the lack of any school-level data is in direct opposition to the meaning of a charter school,” Eastin wrote. In other words, the state can’t measure the school’s effectiveness.

It’s a statistical impossibility for the charter school to meet state requirements for performance or improvement, Counts said. Once a student scores at the 31st percentile — equal to or better than 30 percent of test-takers — in reading and language arts, the student is reclassified as English-speaking and therefore no longer a charter school student. That dooms the charter school to persistently low scores.

A low-scoring school’s failure to improve can subject it to penalties that include reassigning the principal and teachers, withholding money or even closing the school, and Counts said the school would undoubtedly face penalties because it would be locked into low average scores.

The governing council of the charter has already passed a resolution asking the South Bay school board to end the charter because of the financial and test-score implications. The school board is scheduled to consider the matter April 11.

In some cases, charter and noncharter students even share the same classroom.

For example, on Tuesday Counts shuffled between English- and Spanish-speaking students. She has 15 charter students, whose desks face the west wall of the room and a board with Spanish-language sentences written on it. She also has five English-only students whose desks face the north wall and a board with English-language sentences.

So while Jonathan Rosales read an English-language storybook during reading time, Oscar Osuna read “Clifford y la limpieza de primavera,” or “Clifford and the Spring Cleaning.”

Counts said the charter council will turn into a committee that advises the school board on how to teach non-English-speakers. She said she hopes that with the committee’s help the district can continue to improve bilingual education.

Chris Moran: (619) 498-6637; chris.moran@uniontrib.com

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