Cultural School’s Charter Renewed Despite Questions

By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Report

Despite the superintendent’s recommendation against renewing the charter for Xinaxcalmecac Academia Semillas del Pueblo in El Sereno, the Los Angeles Unified School District School Board Tuesday approved the school’s charter petition for another five years, and a condition that the school undergo another review in two years.

The board’s vote was split 4 to 3; Board Members Marguerite LaMotte, Bennett Kayser and Tamar Galatzan voted against the renewal.

The vote came after a heated discussion during which LaMotte complained that the charter school was receiving preferential treatment over other district “focus” schools that will be undergoing reform. She said charter and district schools should be treated the same, calling to attention Semillas’ academic performance scores which she said were no better than two South Los Angeles district schools put up for reform.

“You took La Salle and threw out the window, here you say this one has ‘culture’… If you’re going to be transparent, you have to be transparent for everyone,” she said. If Semillas is approved, then La Salle and Dorsey High should be removed from the public school choice reform process, LaMotte said.

Academia Semillas de Pueblo Principal Marcos Aguilar addressed the board dressed as an Aztec Dancer. Students learn the ancient dances as part of the school’s cultural enrichment program. (LAUSD School Board Meeting Screen Grab)

“Cheating is cheating, and I’m sick of it,” LaMotte told Board President Mónica García, who defended Semillas’ reauthorization on grounds that LAUSD does not have a process for properly evaluating innovative schools that do not fit the typical school model.

She said staff did the best it could with the evaluation process it has to work with, but added the process fails to account for the other valuable measures of student success.

Semillas has an API of 624, below the California Department of Education Similar Schools Median of 778, Resident Schools Median Score of 748 and Comparison Schools Median of 747. The school is in “Program Improvement Year 5” for it’s second year and did not meet the minimum performance criteria in the State Education Code, according to the staff report.

Last year, Semilla’s 2010-2011 API score dropped 92 points, following a 30-point improvement jump the year prior, when its 2009-2010 API increased to 716, according to the LAUSD School Report Card.

In 2010-2011, only 34 percent of students scored proficient or advance in English Language Arts, and only 39 percent in math, according to the same report card.
García said the school is actually performing better than current metrics indicate.

She acknowledges that the school is “struggling,” but said the school board “needs to do more to recognize schools of innovation.”

Academia Semillas del Pueblo was originally approved by the Board of Education in 2001. Its charter was renewed in 2007, despite a staff recommendation against renewal because of the school’s poor test scores.

The school has a dual language and International Baccalaureate programs with instruction in English, Nahuatl (an indigenous Mexican dialect), and previously in Mandarin, and cultivates cultural and intellectual heritage and social awareness, according to the report.

While the charter for the high school was not up for renewal, several speakers cited the achievements of high school students who came up through Semilla’s K-8 program as reasons for renewing the elementary school’s charter.

Marcos Aguilar, principal of both the K-8 program and the high school, told the board the school is the district’s first IB school and is a sought after safe and encouraging environment, He said they have a nearly 100 percent attendance rate and an 80 percent college acceptance rate. “Our students have outperformed their peers in local schools,” Aguilar said.

Parents and other stakeholders told the board the school has zero gang violence, and is a school their children are eager to attend every day.

Nonetheless, Galatzan said charter schools are given contracts and have to live up to certain expectations. She said Semillas was already given a second chance. “We’ve tried and our responsibility is to no longer renew that experiment,” she said.

Garcia said if LAUSD fails to reauthorize the school, it would likely seek charter approval from the Los Angeles County Board of Education.

Kayser expressed concern that approving the Academia Semillas charter despite the school’s weak performance would set a new precedent.

“What will that mean for the next school that comes with similar issues? Will we be able to take action or will this be the new standard?” Kayser asked.

There was some discussion about holding off on approving the charter for 5 years, but LAUSD General Counsel David Holmquist said the charter petition would be automatically approved if the board failed to act Tuesday.

Board member Zimmer, who added a friendly amendment to review the school’s progress in two years, said LAUSD needs to come up with a way to accurately measure this school’s performance.

“If then, under an accurate model of measuring there is still underperformance, that is a different question for me,” he said.

Responding to comments from the public, Kayser asked why there was a discrepancy in the academic achievement being boasted.

José Cole-Gutiérrez, director of LAUSD Charter Schools Innovation and Charter Schools Division, implied that speakers could have been referring to the high school, which is a separate charter school that is not up for renewal this year.

After the vote, LaMotte said she wanted all focus schools in her district to be treated the same, and demanded Dorsey and another high school be reassessed.

Garcia told LaMotte, contrary to the school-of-residence focus schools she was mentioning, like Dorsey High School, as a charter school, Academia Semillas is a school of choice for parents and no one was being forced to attend.

“Sometimes the answer is shut it down… [that’s] not my answer for this one,” Garcia said.

LaMotte, however, was not buying Garcia’s explanation of the difference.

“They were worse than my schools,” she said. “I’m tired of having to assess our schools and nothing is being done for them. This is wrong.”

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April 19, 2012  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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